This report has been updated to include a video message from the presiding bishop.
By Kirk Petersen
Julia Ayala Harris’s own former bishop is the person she alleges made inappropriate contact of a sexual nature immediately after her 2022 election as president of the House of Deputies, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the matter.
Ayala Harris has been a communicant in the Diocese of Oklahoma for many years, and the Rt. Rev. Edward Konieczny stepped down as Bishop of Oklahoma in 2020. The two served together from 2015 to 2022 on the Executive Council, which is the governing body of the Episcopal Church between General Conventions.
On August 30, Ayala Harris announced in a letter to the House of Deputies that a retired bishop had made “unwanted and non-consensual physical contact” with her, along with “inappropriate verbal statements,” in a manner that prompted her to file a formal complaint, and that this occurred as she was waiting to be introduced to the House of Bishops right after her election. When asked by TLC if the contact was sexual in nature, she gave a one-word response through her spokesperson: “Yes.”
Ayala Harris did not name the retired bishop in her letter, and declined to do so in response to media inquiries. Three persons with specific knowledge of the matter independently confirmed Konieczny’s identity, although they were not willing to do so for attribution.
Bill Cathcart, who is chancellor of the Diocese of Oklahoma and also serving as Konieczny’s attorney, said neither he nor the bishop are allowed to discuss the matter under a pastoral direction. He acknowledged that Konieczny is the subject of the complaint.
Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry “chose to recuse himself in this Title IV matter to protect the integrity of the process, and close professional relationships factored into that decision,” said Public Affairs Officer Amanda Skofstad. When asked if the church would lift the restriction preventing Konieczny from discussing the matter, she replied: “Not at this time, in keeping with the terms of the pastoral direction he’s been given.”
Curry designated the Rt. Rev. Dena Harrison, a former suffragan bishop of Texas and member of the Disciplinary Board for Bishops, to oversee the Title IV case.
Curry’s office released a seven-minute video with a pastoral message to the church. “We are all rightly concerned for President Ayala Harris and for all others who have experienced hurt or harm in the church,” he said. He asked the church’s Standing Commission on Structure, Governance, Constitution and Canons to review the practice of ecclesiastical discipline for bishops, and to recommend canonical and procedural changes.
Ayala Harris, 42, is the youngest person and the first Latina to be elected president of the House of Deputies, the second-ranking officer of the church. In her letter to the House of Deputies, she wrote: “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.”
Konieczny, 68, widely known as “Bishop Ed” because of the difficulty of pronouncing his last name, stands well over six feet tall. He is a former police officer, and has served as an informal bodyguard for Curry at many events throughout the latter’s term as presiding bishop.
In 2018, the Executive Council elected Konieczny to serve as the Episcopal Church’s bishop member of the Anglican Consultative Council, one of the four Instruments of Communion of the global Anglican Communion. At that time, in addition to Executive Council, Konieczny served as a member of the presiding bishop’s Council of Advice; as vice president of Province VII; and had served as co-chair of the Joint Nominating Committee for the Election of the Presiding Bishop.
Title IV proceedings are intended to be confidential, but the burden of confidentiality falls unevenly, as the church has no means of imposing discipline on people who are not ordained.
Ayala Harris said she spoke out publicly after being dissatisfied with the outcome of the year-long Title IV disciplinary process. “Despite all the evidence, including three eyewitnesses to the incident, the church attorney assigned to this matter has chosen to refer it for a pastoral response instead of discipline,” she wrote, calling it “an obvious abuse of discretion by the church attorney.”
Ayala Harris’s revelation touched off a tsunami of responses and support over the Labor Day holiday weekend. As TLC first reported September 1, a group of female bishops circulated a letter to the House of Bishops saying: “We are angered by and deeply concerned about the perception – or the reality – that bishops get a free pass on behavioral issues.”
The letter was drafted by Province VIII bishops who were self-selected through an email discussion, and was sent to Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry initially with the signatures of 29 bishops. One of the organizers, Bishop of San Diego Susan Brown Snook, told TLC “we want the church to know we are not looking the other way.” After she posted a copy of the letter on her Facebook page, there was a heated discussion in the comments about why more bishops had not signed.
“Please don’t blame your bishop if you don’t see their signature,” Brown Snook wrote. “One bishop came home from vacation to a barrage of messages asking why they hadn’t signed. Another has Covid right now. Please – this was never intended to be a petition, and we don’t even have a way to get it out to all the bishops to invite signatures. I have every reason to believe that the vast majority of bishops are absolutely committed to accountability. It has achieved its purpose, which is to get it on to the agenda for the next House of Bishops.” The House of Bishops will meet online September 19 to 22.
The number of signatures had grown to 55 by the time the letter was posted on Facebook on the evening of September 3. The vast majority of the signatories are current bishops diocesan, who collectively lead about half of the dioceses of the Episcopal Church.
On September 4, Labor Day, an ad hoc group of priests and others circulated an open letter telling Ayala Harris “you have taken a great risk and shown great courage and love in making visible that which was meant to remain hidden.” The letter challenged the House of Bishops to make “a direct and public response to the report that the second ranking officer in our Church – a lay Latina woman of color – was publicly assaulted at the doorway to your House, by a member of your House.”
The letter solicited signatures, and had received more than 170 as of the evening of September 4, although unlike the bishops’ letter, there was no mechanism for verifying the identity of signers.
The letter from the bishops begins: “We are aware of several recent high profile cases in which bishops were accused of improper behavior, and many in the church believe those bishops received few or no consequences.” The letter does not identify specific cases, but in addition to the allegations against Konieczny, two other bishops this year have faced or been threatened with disciplinary investigations under Title IV of the canons of the church.
Prince Singh, the provisional bishop of Eastern Michigan and Western Michigan, has been accused by his adult sons and ex-wife of years of physical and emotional abuse. John Howard, Bishop of Florida, allegedly engaged in a “pattern and practice” of discrimination against LGBTQ priests and their allies. There has been no public announcement of restrictions on either bishop, both of whom have denied the allegations.
An earlier case that did lead to sanctions against a bishop also generated controversy, because of a perception that the process was more supportive of the bishop than of the dioceses he led. Singh’s predecessor in the dioceses of Eastern Michigan and Western Michigan, Whayne M. Hougland Jr., was suspended for a year in 2020 after admitting adultery. He resigned near the end of his suspension, but in the meantime the dioceses were responsible for his benefits and 60 percent of his salary, while also bearing the expense of a part-time provisional bishop.
The Hougland episode led the 2022 General Convention to order a review of the Office of Pastoral Development, resulting in a separation of two functions of the office: bishop discipline and pastoral support for bishops. In August, the Rev. Barbara Kempf began a new role as intake officer for bishop discipline, working closely with Bishop Todd Ousley, head of the Office of Pastoral Development, but reporting to Curry. Kempf is both a priest and an attorney, and also has a bachelor’s degree in nursing. She has served as an administrative law judge and state health department legal investigator, and as Title IV intake officer for the Diocese of Indianapolis.