By Kirk Petersen
“There was absolutely no sexual misconduct or inappropriate verbal comments in this matter,” according to Bishop Ed Konieczny, in his first public response to an allegation by President of the House of Deputies Julia Ayala Harris. He made the statement in a September 13 letter to the House of Bishops after being granted permission to break the silence imposed by the Title IV disciplinary process.
Meanwhile, a leaked chronology prepared by the presiding bishop’s chancellor described an intensive year-long effort to resolve the matter privately among the parties. Two separate agreements negotiated by Konieczny and the bishop overseeing the disciplinary process were rejected by the Disciplinary Board for Bishops (DBB), for reasons not specified. The chronology and Konieczny’s letter both appear at the bottom of this article.
The documents collectively shed more light on an extraordinary, year-long conflict between two widely respected senior members of the church hierarchy. This and other Title IV matters involving bishops prompted dozens of bishops to sign a letter saying: “We are angered by and deeply concerned about the perception – or the reality – that bishops get a free pass on behavioral issues.” The controversy will be a major topic of discussion at a previously scheduled House of Bishop’s meeting, which will be held online September 19-22.
The stunning nature of the matter is heightened by the longstanding professional and ecclesial relationship between the two individuals. Konieczny retired as Bishop of Oklahoma in August 2020, and Ayala Harris is a longtime communicant in the Diocese of Oklahoma. He is her former bishop. The two of them served together for years on the Executive Council, which is essentially the churchwide board of directors.
The controversy began July 9, 2022, the day Ayala Harris was elected the second-ranking officer of the Episcopal Church. It became public more than a year later, when Ayala Harris sent a letter on August 31, 2023, to the members of the House of Deputies. The letter alleged that a retired bishop, whom she did not identify, made “unwanted and non-consensual physical contact” as she was about to be introduced to a session of the House of Bishops. “I was physically overpowered and lost bodily autonomy,” she wrote. “This, along with some accompanying inappropriate verbal statements, compelled me to submit a Title IV complaint.”
The letter did not specifically describe the contact as sexual. But when TLC asked by email if the contact was sexual in nature, she replied via a spokesperson, “yes.”
Asked to respond to Konieczny’s September 13 letter, Ayala Harris replied by email: “I unequivocally stand by my statements.”
In her earlier letter to the House of Deputies, Ayala Harris wrote that she disclosed the alleged incident because “the church attorney assigned to this matter has chosen to refer it for a pastoral response instead of discipline,” and described the decision as “an obvious abuse of discretion by the church attorney.”
Canon IV.2 states that “A Church Attorney shall perform all functions on behalf of the Church necessary to advance proceedings under this Title.” The canon adds that the powers of the church attorney include “… to exercise discretion consistent with this Title and the interests of the Church by declining to advance proceedings or by referring any matter back to the Intake Officer or the Bishop Diocesan for pastoral response in lieu of disciplinary action.”
The church attorney was Brad Davenport of the Diocese of Virginia, who has served in that capacity in other Title IV processes. He did not respond to requests for comment.
“As the Title IV process evolved over the last 13 months, three reports by two external investigators determined that the retired bishop had likely violated The Episcopal Church’s Title IV canons and New York sexual harassment laws; the third report found that he may have violated the restrictions on his ministry,” she wrote. She said there had been three witnesses to the alleged incident, and that one of them, a bishop she did not identify, had filed a Title IV report within 24 hours. The PHoD election occurred at the General Convention in Baltimore; the reference to New York state law reflects the fact that the Episcopal Church is incorporated there.
Over the Labor Day weekend, TLC learned from several sources that Konieczny was the retired bishop in the alleged incident. The bishop’s attorney, Bill Cathcart, confirmed the identity but said he and the bishop were forbidden to comment further under the terms of a pastoral direction. After TLC identified Konieczny in a September 5 article, the restriction on commenting was lifted September 6 by the “Presiding Bishop-Designate” who assumed supervision of the case after Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry recused himself because of his close relationships with both Konieczny and Ayala Harris.
In his September 13 letter to the House of Bishops, Konieczny said he received a message from Presiding Bishop-Designate Dena Harrison, who is a retired bishop suffragan in the Diocese of Texas, and a member of the DBB. He quoted Harrison as writing that while confidentiality was imposed as a normal part of the Title IV process, “the combination of the Complainant raising the matter publicly and the media’s identification of the Respondent — including the secular media — presents a situation in which continuing to require the Respondent to remain silent about the matter is fundamentally unfair and does not serve the original purposes of the restrictions as fully. As a result, for the time being I am lifting the requirement in the Pastoral Direction in Lieu of Disciplinary Action that requires Bishop Konieczny to ‘refrain from making any statements orally or in writing regarding the incident of July 9, 2022, and subsequent related procedural matters, incidents, and conduct.'”
On September 13, the Standing Commission on Structure, Governance, Constitution and Canons met online to begin discussions on the possible need for revisions to the Title IV disciplinary canons and procedures. To help guide the discussion, a chronology of events was prepared by Mary Kostel, the chancellor to the presiding bishop. TLC and representatives of Episcopal News Service were invited to monitor the meeting and were initially promised a copy of the chronology in advance by Public Affairs Officer Amanda Skofstad. She later said Harrison had decided not to release the chronology, but TLC obtained a copy through an unofficial channel.
Episcopal News Service reported that the commission began discussions on an approach to their work, then went into executive session to discuss the particulars of the complaint.
The three-page chronology manages to be simultaneously detailed and vague. No names are included, and there is no description of the underlying facts. But there are 30 dated entries describing the progression of the case through the labyrinthian Title IV process. The entries begin on July 9, 2022 (“Alleged incident occurred”), and end with the lifting of restrictions on September 6, 2023.
In between, the case escalated from an intake officer to an investigation to a reference panel to a conference panel — all of which are confidential stages in the Title IV process. Bishops Konieczny and Harrison negotiated two Accords, or settlement agreements, and submitted them to the Disciplinary Board for Bishops after consultation with Ayala Harris and Bishop Chilton Knudsen, head of the DBB. The DBB then rejected both Accords, for undisclosed reasons.
Two separate matters were referred to a hearing panel, on April 12 and June 20, 2023. (Skofstad said by email the second matter involved “allegations of a violation of a restriction preventing the respondent from discussing the incident with unrelated parties.”) The hearing panel is the stage at which the Title IV process stops being confidential, and Cathcart told TLC by email that a hearing was scheduled for August 11. However, Church Attorney Davenport recommended a “pastoral response in lieu of disciplinary action” on July 25. Bishop Harrison issued such a pastoral response on July 31, terminating the Title IV process.
Bishops Harrison and Knudsen did not respond to requests for comment.
To recap: Two very senior members of the church hierarchy have offered differing accounts of an encounter between the two of them. The accounts contradict each other, but neither person offers enough specific information for a neutral party to evaluate the accounts. The incident was the subject of a year-long investigation and disciplinary process, which inevitably generated a paper trail, but thus far nobody has disclosed documentation of the investigation. The church would be better served by a clearer understanding of the facts.
The chronology above was created by Mary Kostel, chancellor to the presiding bishop. It refers to people by title or status, rather than by name, but here are some identifications:
Respondent: Ed Konieczny, retired Bishop of Oklahoma
Complainant: Julia Ayala Harris, president of the House of Deputies
Presiding Bishop: Michael B. Curry
Vice President of the House of Bishops: Mary Gray-Reeves, retired Bishop of the Diocese of El Camino Real
Presiding Bishop-Designate: Dena Harrison, retired Bishop Suffragan of Texas
President of the Disciplinary Board for Bishops: Chilton Knudsen, retired Bishop of Maine
Church Attorney: Brad Davenport, Diocese of Virginia