Convention Confronts Sexual Misconduct

Mihai Surdu | Unsplash |

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

Victims of sexual misconduct in the Episcopal Church more than 10 years ago have long heard that the statute of limitations prevents any resolution of their cases.

But a key General Convention panel cleared the way July 10 for the church to revisit cases dating back as far as 1996. It was part of a raft of legislation emerging this week from the Committee on Safeguarding and Title IV in an attempt to crack down on sexual misconduct and cover-ups within the Episcopal Church.

Now en route to the House of Deputies and House of Bishops are resolutions to prohibit retaliation against complainants and notify the public of disciplinary hearings, among more than a dozen other measures.

“There was, quite frankly, in the church before a certain amount of cover-up, and we’ve heard lots of testimony from people that were hurt by that,” said Arizona Bishop Kirk Smith, a member of the committee. “Or they were afraid to bring a complaint or a charge because they were afraid they might lose their jobs or their careers might be hurt. We’ve got stuff now that would prevent that.”

Since General Convention began July 5, the committee has approved 32 resolutions, which are reaching the two houses. Most deal in one way or another with sexual misconduct in the wake of the #MeToo movement, which has in the past year highlighted experiences of sexual harassment and toppled prominent men in film, news, and other industries.

The House of Bishops has taken steps to raise the profile of the issue. Bishops began General Convention with a liturgical forum that highlighted victims’ stories of sexual misconduct in the church. Bishops also adopted a covenant to “listen to and take to heart the stories that reflect the biases deeply embedded in our structure.”

In the House of Deputies, #MeToo resolutions have reached the voting stage. Deputies on July 11 passed Resolution C060 creating a task force to study sexism in the church. Earlier in General Convention, deputies approved Resolution A016, which would create a task force for women, truth, and reconciliation in the church. Both await action in the House of Bishops.

“The church should be one of the safest places for people in danger of power abuses,” said the Rev. Laurie Brock, a member of the Safeguarding Committee and chair of a truth and reconciliation subcommittee of the Special Committee on Sexual Harassment and Exploitation. Creating a safer environment is not just a women’s issue, she said.

“This is a human issue,” Brock said. “This is a Christian issue.”

Resolution D034 would suspend the statute of limitations for a three-year period. That means cases dating as far back as the mid-1990s may be heard as long as complaints are filed between Jan. 1, 2019, and Dec. 31, 2021. Some members of the committee raised legal concerns and voted against the resolution.

“There is a reason for statute of limitations: evidence is lost,” said the Rev. Ted Clarkson, a deputy from Georgia. ”Memories do change over time. I think a 30-year-old claim coming up that becomes he said, she said is not fair.”

Committee-approved proposals aim to increase transparency in the church disciplinary system, known as Title IV proceedings. Resolution A118, for instance, would require that notification be posted on diocesan websites when a hearing (trial) is scheduled in a sexual misconduct case.

Posting relevant documents that are not deemed confidential can be time-consuming for diocesan staff, according to concerns expressed on the committee. But that’s not a reason to hold back, said Christopher Hayes, a California deputy and attorney involved in updating the church’s Title IV-related canons.

“It’s worth it to make this public,” Hayes said. “If something has gone to a hearing panel, we need to know.”

D064 requires that when a case is settled before the hearing stage, any signed account would need to be filed in an Episcopal Church database. This would allow search committees to be aware when vetting candidates for a position whether someone has a history of quietly resolving sexual misconduct cases.

Not all proposals heard by the committee are moving to the House of Deputies or House of Bishops. Some have been referred for further study, including one Resolution D091, which aims to curtail use of non-disclosure agreements in cases involving sexual misconduct. Such agreements have a role in certain employment situations and can be useful, said committee member Zoe Cole, a deputy from Colorado.

“We need to be specific about the ways in which these vehicles compromise reconciliation and healing in cases of sexual misconduct,” Cole said.

Overseeing relationships can be messy business, as committee members acknowledged more than once during deliberations. Resolution A124 fine-tunes the definition of sexual misconduct to include any unwelcome sexual behavior. It also asks the Standing Commission on Structure, Governance, Constitution & Canons is directed to determine canons that need amending to clarify when a pastoral relationship exists or ends for purposes of a charge of sexual misconduct.

Committee members debated, for instance, whether all clergy relationships with parishioners are prohibited or if pastoral relationships include only a subset. The idea that all inter-parish relationships might be categorically banned for clergy (under some interpretations of the canon) was a stumbling block for some on the committee.

“As somebody who met my wife in church, I have a little trouble with this,” Bishop Smith said. “Somebody told me that one-third of bishops met their spouses in church, so there could be a lot of Title IVs,” he said..

Brock said the committee heard a wide range of voices, including those of victims and those who could testify to how Title IV canons are experienced in parish and diocesan life. The work will continue for a long time, she said, and points the church toward recognizing the dignity of every individual.

“This is about doing what Jesus taught,” Brock said.


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