NORTHWESTERN PENNSYLVANIA: Bishop asks victims of abusive bishop to come forward

Episcopal News Service. July 12, 2010 [071210-03]

Mary Frances Schjonberg

Saying that he had learned of "four credible allegations of sexual abuse" by a deceased predecessor, Episcopal Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania Bishop Sean Rowe asked July 11 that women who may have been sexually abused during their childhoods by Bishop Donald Davis to come forward.

In a pastoral letter read in the diocese's 34 churches, Rowe, 35, said his request was part of his effort to "seek healing and reconciliation for those who have been harmed."

"Sexual abuse in any form is abhorrent in any community, and as your bishop, I feel particular pain that one of my predecessors betrayed the trust and innocence of children," Rowe said in his letter. "On behalf of the church, I offer an abject apology to Bishop Davis' victims, their families, and everyone whose trust in the church has been violated, and I ask for your forgiveness."

Rowe said that while he "cannot undo the grievous wrongs that Bishop Davis has done, nor take away the pain of his victims," he would do his best "to ensure that, from now on, this diocese will tell the truth and seek healing and reconciliation for those who have been harmed."

That pledge, he said, is why he made the situation public and asked "anyone else who may have been abused by Bishop Davis to come forward, publicly or confidentially, to me."

"The existence of four victims makes it possible that there are others, and we are bound as Christians to seek their healing," Rowe said.

In two cases, the abuse took place at the diocese's summer camp in the late 1970s or early 1980s when the girls were between the ages of 9 and 11, according to a question-and-answer paper posted on the diocesan website. The other two victims were abused over time when they were children, the paper said.

Davis, who died in 2007, was bishop of the diocese from 1974 to 1991. The four cases occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s, according to a diocesan news release.

Rowe said in his letter that one of the victims "who was abused sometime between 1978 and 1980" called him on March 30, 2010, and that he immediately began an investigation that showed three other victims had come forward in the past.

Bishop Robert Rowley, Rowe's immediate predecessor, was aware of incidents of abuse as early as 1993 and reported them to the Office of the Presiding Bishop, Rowe said, adding that his investigation showed that Rowley met with victims and assisted in arranging counseling.

In early 1994, then-Presiding Bishop Edmund Browning asked Davis to resign from the House of Bishops in 1994 and undergo pastoral counseling and see a psychiatrist, Rowe said. Davis, then living in retirement in Sarasota, Florida, agreed to refrain from priestly or episcopal duties, meaning that he was effectively removed as a bishop of the church, Rowe said in his letter. Davis also helped pay for counseling for two of the victims, according to the diocesan news release.

The abuse and the subsequent actions were never made public. Rowley, who served as diocesan bishop from 1991 to August 2007, died Jan. 18, 2010, shortly before Rowe learned of the abuse.

"If allegations of sexual abuse involving children against a living member of the clergy surfaced today, we would immediately contact civil authorities and begin canon law processes," Rowe told the diocese. "I do not know why church leaders in the past handled this situation the way they did," he added, noting that several of the victims specifically asked that their situations not be made public.

Rowe said that he had spoken directly to Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, as well as others, about his plan to make the situation public "and she supports my decision to speak with you about these matters."

In addition, the diocesan Standing Committee said that it learned of the situation on July 10 and supports Rowe's efforts at reconciliation, healing "and for openness and honesty."

"Our churches must be places where children are nurtured and respected and cared for and never harmed or abused in any way," Rowe said. "I regret deeply that this has not always been the case in the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania. As your bishop, I will do everything in my power to make sure that we seek God’s healing and reconciliation for the women Bishop Davis abused when they were girls and that nothing like this ever happens again in our diocese."

The text of Rowe's pastoral letter is available here.

The background paper is here.

Women who may have been abused by Davis can contact Rowe confidentially by calling 814-456-4203 or e-mailing