Although the Episcopal Church may be deadlocked over who may be
ordained, it is agreed on procedures for handling clergy misconduct. After
three years of painstaking work by the Standing Commission on Constitution
and Canons (SCCC) and an hour of painful testimony at a General Convention
open hearing, bishops and deputies overwhelmingly approved a massive
overhaul of the Title IV clergy disciplinary canons.
The new church laws, which go into effect January 1, 1996, provide
more uniform and balanced procedures for bringing charges against clergy
accused of misconduct, in prosecuting charges, and in protecting the due
process rights of both complainants and the accused.
Despite forceful arguments over statutes of limitation on alleged abuse
and a controversial provision grandfathering victims who are ineligible to file
charges under current canons, bishops and deputies agreed with the majority of
revisions proposed in the resolution (A-019/a). The only change was a minor
"friendly" amendment by the bishops allowing a vestry to retain a suspended
clergy person who is seeking treatment.
Vestries can retain suspended clergy
In the bishops' debate, Bishop David Joslin of Central New York
proposed an amendment that would allow a vestry, by two-thirds vote, to ask
the ecclesiastical authority to retain their pastoral relationship with a suspended
"What we were concerned about was if someone's going into rehab, the
person might continue and come back as the rector, in other cases they would
not," explained Bishop Robert Rowley of Northwestern Pennsylvania, a lawyer
who was chair of the bishops' canons committee. He accepted the revision as
a friendly amendment.
The bishops spent considerable time on an amendment proposed by
Bishop William Wantland of Eau Claire (Wisconsin) to delete three paragraphs
extending the statute of limitations indefinitely in cases where the victim was a
minor at the time of an offense involving sexual abuse, sexual exploitation or
"We do have statutes of limitations on everything except capital,
criminal offenses," said Wantland. "I think if you do this you open up the
possibility of charges being filed against clergy for events alleged to have
occurred years and years ago. All you have to allege is that 'it happened
when I was a kid,"' warned Wantland, who is an attorney. "To eliminate
statues of limitation on this kind of situation is conducive to coercion and
fraud." "I've seen the other side of the story," countered Bishop Ronald
Haines of Washington, whose son Jeffrey has accused a priest in the Diocese
of Western North Carolina of sexually abusing him as a child. "The church
has a chance to be the church at this point, and I have a new concept of how
Title IV might work to be much more of an opportunity for healing."
Wantland's proposal eventually failed, and the bishops added only the
Uniform standards created
The Title IV revisions, covering 68 pages in the General Convention
Blue Book, revise 18 canons dealing with the type of offenses subject to
presentment, the parties allowed to file misconduct charges, the trial of
bishops, the role of bishops in presentments, due process rights for
complainants and the accused, statutes of limitations, and rules of evidence.
Modeled on the U.S. Armed Forces Uniform Code of Military
Conduct, the new canons give clarity and uniformity to a process that in large
part was left up to individual dioceses. The old canons, unchanged since their
creation in 1915, were intended to deal primarily with issues of heresy and
doctrine. Until the 1970s, cases of clergy misconduct "were usually handled
privately by the bishops and clergy guilty of misconduct," explained Robert
Royce, former chancellor of the Diocese of Long Island and the principal
author of the SCCC's resolution.
"We had so much local option that the same set of facts in two
different dioceses gave no guidance to either, and we felt that was not
appropriate," said Royce. "So we have truly drawn this thing kicking and
screaming into the modern era."
What they were looking for, said Bishop Rowley was "a balanced set of
canons in which clergy's rights are protected, the interests of the church as a
whole are served," and in which victims feel secure in making complaints.
The revised canons assure that both victims and alleged abusers will have the
right to be present, heard and assisted by an advocate or attorney throughout
the process of an ecclesiastical trial. The revision makes it clear that
procedures are for use in church trials and not civil or criminal litigation.
Members of the committee said they believe the proposed document clarifies
the role of a bishop in dealing with sexual-misconduct cases, while maintaining
a pastoral role. "As a bishop," Rowley said, "I am very comfortable with the
The SCCC, in consultation with the Executive Council's Committee on
Sexual Exploitation, was able to repair most of weaknesses in its resolution.
But the cognate committee on canons further refined the measure with 100
amendments focusing principally on statute of limitations, confidentiality
provisions, and the rights of victims to select their own counsel.
"It's now a very balanced document," said Sally Johnson, chancellor
for the Diocese of Minnesota and the principal author of the cognate
committees' amendments. It goes further, she said, in addressing the needs of
the congregations, the clergy and the victims.
Johnson admitted that the interests of victims were a primary concern
in her changes. Besides expanding the list of persons who can bring charges,
by including the spouse and dependent elderly relatives of victims, Johnson
also removed time limits on filing sexual abuse, sexual exploitation and
physical violence charges if the victim was a minor at the time of the offense.
The point was to give more flexibility to a rigid standard based on outmoded
understanding of the psychological effects of sexual abuse.
The old canon, she explained, "had an absolute five-year statute of
limitations such that if an act had happened five years and one day ago, be it
to a four-year old or a 40-year old, no charges could be brought on it."
Victims of sexual abuse usually require years of healing "before they have the
ego strength or the spiritual strength" to endure a grueling legal process,
The committee learned firsthand how difficult that process can be from
several witnesses at its open hearing during convention. Some of the most
powerful testimony came from Jeffrey Haines, who related how he had been
sexually abused starting at age 8 and continuing until age 20. The alleged
offender -- the Rev. J. Faulton Hodge of the Diocese of Western North
Carolina -- was described by Haines as a friend of the family.
An angry Haines, who last month filed a civil suit against Hodge and
the Diocese of Western North Carolina, told the committee that all statutes of
limitations should be eliminated regarding sexual misconduct charges, and that
any priest convicted or admitting to sexual misconduct should be automatically
"It's unrealistic to believe a child would be able to come forward to say
'I was abused by a priest,'" said Haines. The fact that it has taken Haines
until age 32 to be able to address his experience was a major factor in the
committee's decision to eliminate the time limits for victims filing charges on
offenses that occurred when they were minors, said Rowley. "That is just not
satisfactory in our mind. That's not the way for a church," he said.
Royce pointed out that the committee also addressed the due process
rights of clergy. "We wanted to build some protection into the situations so
that clergy also have a clear opportunity to understand what we tried to do for
their rights and to make sure that they are not abused because of the stress or
drama of any particular moment."
Both Johnson and Royce stressed that the changes are not a remedy for
misconduct. Johnson described the new canons as "a very important middle
step" of a wider process built around clergy wellness efforts like the Church
Pension Fund's Cornerstone Project. "This process is designed to help the
church respond appropriately to prevent church insurance from ever having to
Whether or not the convention chose to adopt the new canons, the
church would still experience sexual misconduct, said Royce. Eliminating
misconduct will require pairing penalties with prevention programs. "What we
need is continuing education," he said. "We need continuing clergy wellness
to ensure that people are not victimized initially so that these canons don't
have to be used. And that is the key for me."
The proposed changes to Title IV canons include the following
- eliminating the statute of limitations for charges involving sexual abuse,
sexual exploitation, or physical violence if the victim was a minor at the time
of the offense, and stating that charges may be filed any time prior to the
victim reaching age 25 for other offenses;
- increasing the existing five-year statute of limitations for general misconduct
charges to 10 years;
- allowing charges to be filed anytime within three years after a conviction of
the accused in a civil or criminal court when the alleged misconduct doesn't
involve sexual abuse or exploitation, or physical violence;
- if the victim doesn't realize or discover the effects of the offense at the time
of its occurrence (if offense is not sexual abuse or exploitation, or physical
violence) then charges can be filed within 10 years following the offense and
within two years of its discovery;
- permitting charges to be filed during a two-and-a-half-year window -- running from the enactment of the enabling resolution to Jan. 1, 1996 when
the changes take effect -- by complainants whose cases would not meet the filing
deadlines in the old canons;
- limiting the authority to issue presentments to standing committees, thereby
removing the bishop from this process;
- creating specific guidelines on who may file charges -- previously left up to
the dioceses to determine -- permitting charges to be filed by the victim, parents
of the victim, or the victim's spouse or "adult child" [meaning a dependent
elderly person]; the vestry of the accused's church; any three priests in the
diocese where the accused is canonically resident; any three adult
communicants in the accused's diocese; standing committees; or the
ecclesiastical authority of a diocese;
- creating the new position of a church advocate, an attorney appointed to
assist the victim in understanding the church's disciplinary process, and in
preparing a charge, and in pastoral care;
- entitling victims to retain their own counsel or advocate;
- the appointment of an independent prosecutor, or "church attorney," by the
ecclesiastical court in each diocese;
- allowing victims to have input during the sentencing of offenders;
- protecting the accused from self-incrimination;
- adding admonition -- a less extreme reprimand -- as a third option to an
ecclesiastical court's sentencing choices, which are currently limited to
suspension or deposition;
- setting "clear and convincing evidence" as the test for an ecclesiastical court
to reach a conviction, which is a less demanding standard that the current
"beyond a reasonable doubt";
- barring chancellors or vice chancellors of a diocese from serving as church
advocates or counsels for the complainants; and
- mandating confidentiality during the investigation phase prior to the issue of