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Bedside Executive Decisions

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry was discharged from a Virginia hospital Friday after an eventful week in which he underwent brain surgery, placed three senior staff members on administrative leave, and announced an investigation into possible misconduct in the church’s top management ranks.

As Bishop Curry was preparing to leave the hospital, he released a letter to staff explaining the action he had taken on Wednesday, one day after his surgery. He had placed three senior leaders on leave: Chief Operating Officer Stacy Sauls, Deputy COO Samuel McDonald, and Director of Public Engagement Alex Baumgarten.

“This is a result of concerns that have been raised about possible misconduct in carrying out their duties as members of senior management of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society,” Curry wrote. “My decision should not be confused with a finding of fault, but is necessary to allow us to find clarity. We are taking these allegations seriously and there will be a full and fair examination.”

Curry took the step on a day when he most likely woke up in the intensive care unit. He had undergone urgent brain surgery to drain a subdural hematoma, or pooling of blood beside the brain. Following such a procedure, the standard practice is to keep a patient in the ICU for at least one day after surgery for close monitoring, according to Dr. Alex Valadka, chair of the department of neurosurgery at Virginia Commonwealth University Medical School.

Valadka did not discuss Curry’s particular condition, but he explained what post-hematomal patients generally experience on the day after surgery. Some receive painkillers for headache in the ICU, he said. Some are alert enough to address business matters from the bed.

“The Presiding Bishop has always maintained his capabilities throughout his stay in the hospital,” said Neva Rae Fox, the church’s officer for public affairs, via email.

Friday’s letter from Curry raised eyebrows, not only due to the allegations’ seriousness and stature of those involved, but also on account of the timing. Whatever precipitated the action, it must have been something that could not wait even a few days until Curry resumes a partial work schedule from home, according to Peter Williams, professor emeritus of church history at Miami University (Ohio).

“There must be an urgency to this,” Williams said. “It sounds to me like something he’s just trying to get ahead of before it hits the press or something like that.”

What type of misconduct might have transpired has observers posing questions but few answers thus far. Williams wonders whether the Episcopal Church’s financial structure, which he finds “odd” and “convoluted,” might invite misuse. But others note that the church put extensive safeguards in place after former treasurer Ellen Cooke stole more than $2 million in the early 1990s.

“Since then, the fiscal management has been extraordinarily tight and well-controlled,” said Duncan Ely, executive director of the General Board of Examining Chaplains. “Everyone follows the advice of counsel and auditors for the most responsible fiscal management and all of that. It seems very unlikely to me that anyone has absconded with any money, but who knows?”

Sauls, who has a background in corporate law, served as Bishop of Lexington from 2000 to 2011, when he took the reins as chief operating officer of the Domestic and Foreign Mission Society. That same year he appointed McDonald, who had been his canon to the ordinary in Lexington, to the deputy COO position. Before joining the national church staff in 2004, Baumgarten worked in Washington, D.C., as a lobbyist.

In his letter, Curry urged staff members to pray for those affected by the administrative leave.

“I also ask that we all refrain from speculation, difficult though that may be,” Curry wrote. “We all have a responsibility to protect the integrity of all the human beings involved and also the integrity of a fair and just process in this matter.”

Curry said an independent investigator will look into the allegations expeditiously. He is expected to address the issue when he meets with DFMS staff via videoconference from his home in North Carolina on Monday.


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