Update: On August 31, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry released a three-paragraph statement saying he had recused himself from the Title IV matter “and therefore had no ultimate decision-making role.” He did not otherwise address the specifics of the allegations. Read the complete statement.
By Kirk Petersen
Julia Ayala Harris has alleged that on the day she was elected president of the House of Deputies in 2022, an unidentified retired bishop made “unwanted and non-consensual physical contact” in a manner that led her to file a formal complaint under the church canons regarding disciplinary proceedings against clergy.
When asked by TLC if the unwanted contact was sexual in nature, she responded in writing through a spokesperson: “Yes.”
In a letter to deputies distributed on August 30, Ayala Harris wrote: “Over the last year, I have been the complainant in a Title IV case under the purview of the Disciplinary Board for Bishops.”
The Title IV process concluded on July 31, 2023, and in what she described as “an obvious abuse of discretion,” Ayala Harris said “the church attorney assigned to this matter has chosen to refer it for a pastoral response instead of discipline.” This was despite three witnesses to the incident, she said, as well as three external investigations that determined “the retired bishop had likely violated The Episcopal Church’s Title IV canons and New York sexual harassment laws.”
The General Convention took place in Baltimore in July 2022. The reference to New York law may reflect the fact that the corporate entity of the church is headquartered in New York City.
Ayala Harris declined to discuss the specifics of the allegations over the telephone, asking TLC to submit written questions through her spokeswoman, Adialyn Milien. When asked to identify the retired bishop, Milien quoted Ayala Harris as saying “I do not feel safe sharing this information at this time.” She declined also to identify the witnesses to the alleged incident.
In the letter to the deputies, Ayala Harris wrote:
“On July 9th, 2022, shortly after the House of Deputies elected me to serve as your 34th president, I experienced an incident of unwanted and non-consensual physical contact. I was physically overpowered and lost bodily autonomy by a retired bishop waiting for my arrival to greet our colleagues in the House of Bishops. This, along with some accompanying inappropriate verbal statements, compelled me to submit a Title IV complaint via my chancellor to the intake officer in the Office of Pastoral Development.”
When asked in writing to define what she meant by “lost bodily autonomy,” she responded, “I was unable to move my body, even though I tried because I was being physically overpowered.”
It is hard to overstate the potential impact of these explosive allegations.
In the corporate hierarchy of the church, Ayala Harris is outranked only by Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry. By virtue of her election by the House of Deputies, she serves also as the vice chair of the Executive Council (essentially the board of directors). The PHoD serves also as a vice president of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society (DFMS), the 200-year-old formal name of the corporation. In the latter role, she is authorized to sign contracts and checks on behalf of DFMS. Many major announcements are signed jointly by the presiding officers of the two legislative houses — Curry and Ayala Harris.
She did not identify the retired bishop in question, but the name will inevitably become known. According to the official Journal of the 80th General Convention, only eight male retired bishops were registered for the convention.
There already have been real-world consequences from the alleged incident. “The retired bishop was placed on restricted ministry under Title IV,” Ayala Harris wrote. “As the Title IV case progressed, the executive officer of the General Convention removed the retired bishop from serving on certain governance bodies pursuant to the anti-harassment policies of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society.”
“Until today, to uphold the integrity of the process, I have shared information about this incident and case with very few people, including my family, staff, therapist, and Council of Advice,” Ayala Harris wrote in her letter to the deputies. “With the Title IV process having been exhausted as of July 31, 2023, I want you, the House I serve, to hear about this from me as part of my ongoing commitment to transparency.”
“My motivation for sharing this story stems from a deep love for our church. It is from this place of profound care and concern that I raise important questions about safety and accountability,” Ayala Harris wrote. “If the president-elect of our House and deputy chair of the Legislative Committee on Sexual Harassment, Sexual Exploitation, and Safeguarding can experience unsafe treatment right at the door of the House of Bishops during the General Convention, then who in our church can truly be safe? If there is no discipline for well-documented violations, then under what circumstances would discipline be imposed?”
When asked by TLC if she had any further recourse under Title IV, Ayala Harris responded: “This particular process has been exhausted, but we believe that the matter can be taken up again under different circumstances.”
When asked if Ayala Harris intended to file civil or criminal charges, the written response was “no comment.”
Public Affairs Officer Amanda Skofstad said she would not have any immediate comment on behalf of the church or the presiding bishop. (She released a statement from the presiding bishop the following day.) Two senior executives referenced in Ayala Harris’s letter did not immediately respond to requests for comment: The Rev. Michael Barlowe, executive officer of the General Convention, and Bishop Todd Ousley, head of the Office of Pastoral Development.