The Diocese of San Diego adopts report drawing from practices of the U.S. Navy.

By Matthew Townsend

For parishes and dioceses aspiring to overhaul how they handle cases of clergy sexual misconduct — especially concerning recurring trauma suffered by victims and parishes — a new model may be emerging within the church.

Months of deep research by a five-member task force in the Diocese of San Diego has produced a 60-page report with sweeping and specific recommendations for introducing trauma-informed care and reducing retraumatization of victims throughout the stages of reporting, adjudication, and recovery.

The task force, led by the Rev. Paige Blair-Hubert, set out to answer a specific question: How do you approach cases of clergy sexual misconduct and abuse without causing additional, continuing harm to victims — a trauma after the trauma? Blair-Hubert told TLC that two women within the diocese developed the resolution launching the task force, and that they had gone through Title IV processes as victims. “They found the process to be significantly retraumatizing,” she said.

“It comes in a lot of different forms,” such as institutional or personal failures — people not keeping to their word to protect victims’ interests. Others may approach victims and say the wrong thing, Blair-Hubert said.

This could be a well-meaning but poorly conceived comment or a barb defending the accused, like “He couldn’t have said anything like that to her, he never said that to me,” she suggested. The women who drafted the resolution “were really calling our diocese to do Title IV better; not just do it better on the diocesan level, but the parish level, too.”

The task force set out to find an existing example in the church of a “Holy Grail” — a diocese or parish that had figured out how to approach misconduct in a manner informed about trauma, incorporating current understanding of brain science. “No one was doing it,” Blair-Hubert said. “We couldn’t find the Holy Grail anywhere. On phone call after phone call, we promised that when we were done with our report, we would send the report to the people who had helped us.”

The group kept working, though, and eventually found inspiration in an unexpected place: the U.S. Navy Sexual Assault Case Management Group, part of its Sexual Assault Prevention & Response program. The task force then assembled its research into the report, which outlines three core recommendations for the diocese: (1) broad education within the diocese about trauma and retraumatization, (2) creation of a victim-focused compassionate care team based on the Navy model, and (3) a similar congregation-focused pastoral response team — a method the group found in use within the Diocese of North Carolina.

Blair-Hubert said the report has been described as an indictment — it cites 23 ways in which existing approaches in the diocese and the wider Episcopal Church cause retraumatization, ranging from inconsistent application of Title IV to not covering fees for survivors’ therapeutic needs. This is really just the first few pages, though; the bulk of the report provides detailed information about the nature of trauma and developments in trauma-related care, offering a path for the diocese to become better informed in its approach.

It is in plain, accessible language and divided into digestible sections, with bullet points breaking down complex concepts. Recommendations are comprehensive and direct, most likely offering answers to most questions a parish or diocese might raise.

For example, the section on communications in trauma-informed responses to clergy sexual misconduct begins: “All communications must be managed by the Diocese. … We have seen when the Respondent manages the communication, the result is often wildly inconsistent, and often lacking in truthfulness.”

Likewise, four pages offer recommendations on preventing isolation of victims. “If the Respondent is not immediately put on administrative leave, the Complainant is likely unable to attend her home church during the Title IV process.” Another section addresses reintroduction of clergy offenders to parishes.

Suggested prayers and liturgical resources are included, with a glossary in the appendices. Appendix II lists the members of the task force — and identifies four of the five members as survivors of clergy sexual misconduct.

The Standing Committee is now charged with carrying out the report’s recommendations — a resolution to this effect was brought to the convention in November. “It ended up passing overwhelmingly at our convention, with only a murmured no,” Blair-Hubert said.

The success of the recommendations will hinge on their collective adoption, she said — and on a change in attitude.

“It’s really about changing our culture. It’s really addressing how the culture needs to change in our dioceses and our parishes around these issues of sexual misconduct by clergy or lay people with power. What I would say, if a parish found [itself] in the situation, is the only way to heal is to move through it,” she said. “Parishes that are willing to look honestly at their circumstances and move through it, those parishes can heal.”

Blair-Hubert said many feel called to do this work — but the challenge is not making the harm worse. Many abuse survivors leave the church, “which means we’re making it worse.”

She cited the Episcopal Church’s three-year suspension of the statute of limitations on sexual abuse, which became effective Jan. 1. “We need to get our act together about this quickly,” she said, wondering whether the church is prepared for what might come. “I think about all those victims who want to be survivors.”

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