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Church Attorney Role a Focus of Bishops’ Title IV Discussion

By Kirk Petersen

One focus of the House of Bishops’ Title IV discussion is whether a single person — an attorney acting as a prosecutor — should have unilateral authority to shut down a disciplinary proceeding against a bishop after the Disciplinary Board for Bishops (DBB) has recommended a public ecclesiastical trial.

The House of Bishops spent nearly an hour September 20 reviewing a chronology of allegations by the second-ranking officer of the church against a prominent bishop. President of the House of Deputies Julia Ayala Harris alleges that her former bishop, the Rt. Rev. Ed Konieczny, made “unwanted and non-consensual physical contact” and inappropriate comments that prompted her to file a Title IV complaint. He denies the allegations. The two served together for years on the churchwide Executive Council.

Mary Kostel, chancellor to the presiding bishop, reviewed the more than 30 entries spanning more than a year on the chronology she had prepared for the bishops’ consideration. TLC published a leaked copy of the chronology September 14.

Kostel was careful to avoid providing any details about the alleged incident that led to the complaint, or about the deliberations of the various panels involved. But in response to a question about the role of the church attorney, she said the Standing Commission on Structure, Governance, Constitution and Canons was already discussing that issue before the current high-profile case became public knowledge.

During the yearlong Title IV process, the DBB rejected two settlement “accords,” reportedly because they were considered too lenient. The accords were between Konieczny and Bishop Dena Harrison, who was overseeing the case after Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry recused himself. As provided in the canons, Ayala Harris was consulted on the accords but was not a party to them, although in at least one case she “supported the provisions that directly impacted her.”

After discussions toward a revised accord were abandoned, the “reference panel” administering the process referred it to a hearing panel for trial, and an initial hearing was scheduled for August 11.

However, on July 25, 2023, the church attorney referred the matter for “pastoral response in lieu of disciplinary action,” which had the effect of dismissing the case.

“Questions had come up from other places about that, the exercise of the church attorney’s discretion, and should there be other ways or other people involved, or other consultations rather than letting one person have that much discretion,” Kostel said. The church attorney in a Title IV matter has been described as the rough equivalent of a prosecutor in the secular world, and she noted that such prosecutors have similar authority to decide not to pursue a case. There is no mechanism in the canons to appeal the church attorney’s decision.

Church Attorney Brad Davenport of the Diocese of Virginia has not responded to requests for comment.

The House of Bishops is meeting online September 19-22, and portions of the plenary sessions have been made available to the media over a livestream. After the presentation by Kostel and J.B. Burtch, who served as counsel to the DBB, the bishops broke into groups for private discussions.

Polly Getz, vice chancellor of the Diocese of San Diego, is a Title IV expert who is not involved in the current case. But she said there have been a lot of angry discussions about the matter throughout the church, and she personally was upset, asking “how did the response end up being so ‘nothing’?” A different canon lawyer who asked not to be identified described the outcome as “a gift” to Konieczny. More than 50 bishops signed a letter declaring that bishops should not get a “free pass” on behavioral matters — before it was revealed that Konieczny was the accused bishop. Konieczny, the retired Bishop of Oklahoma, has been prominent in church governance matters for years.

Ayala Harris alleged in a public letter that the incident occurred on July 9, 2022, the day she was elected president of the House of Deputies at General Convention in Baltimore, and involved an unidentified bishop who was later revealed to be Konieczny. Her letter did not use the word “sexual” in describing the incident, but when TLC later asked if it was sexual in nature, she responded by email with one word: “yes.” Konieczny has said “there was absolutely no sexual misconduct or inappropriate verbal comments in this matter.”

The Title IV process is designed to be confidential, up until the point that a hearing panel holds an ecclesiastical trial, which is required to be public.

This story has been updated to correct Polly Getz’s title.

 

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