NORTHWESTERN PENNSYLVANIA: Bishop reports on more victims of abusive predecessor

Episcopal News Service. September 13, 2010 [091310-04]

Mary Frances Schjonberg

Episcopal Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania Bishop Sean Rowe said Sept. 12 that a total of nine women have now told him that they were sexually abused or intimidated by former diocesan bishop Donald Davis.

Seven were abused while they were girls and two women have reported being harassed and intimidated as adults, Rowe said in a letter to the Erie-based diocese.

Rowe wrote to update diocesan members on his earlier invitation for women whom the now-deceased Davis may have been sexually abused during their childhoods to come forward. Rowe's invitation was part of a July 11 pastoral letter he sent to the diocese in which he reported having learned of "four credible allegations of sexual abuse" by Davis.

The five additional women then contacted Rowe.

"I have had conversations with all five of the women who contacted me since my invitation in early July, and they have told me that their only interest in coming forward has been in helping me arrive at a fuller picture of the scope of Bishop Davis' abuse," Rowe wrote on Sept. 12. "I want to thank them for their courage and to apologize to them once again for the abuse visited on them in what should have been an atmosphere of safety and love."

Rowe reported that he had also been in contact with the bishops of other dioceses in which Davis served as a priest or lived in retirement "so that they could pursue this matter as they saw fit."

"I will speak with each of them further at the House of Bishops meeting in Phoenix this week," Rowe said.

Davis, who died in 2007, was bishop of the diocese from 1974 to 1991. According to an obituary, Davis served at Church of the Epiphany and Christ Church,Georgetown in Washington, D.C. before becoming the first rector of St. Christopher's Episcopal Church in Carmel, Indiana, from 1957 to 1963. He was rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Toledo, Ohio, from 1963 to 1971 and rector of Trinity Church in Bloomington, Indiana and a chaplain at Indiana University from 1970 to 1973 before being elected bishop in 1973. Davis had been living in Sarasota, Florida at the time of his death.

In two of the earlier-reported cases, the abuse took place at the Northwestern Pennsylvania'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.

The four cases occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s, according to a diocesan press release.

Rowe said in his initial 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 July 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 in July. "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.

In his Sept. 12 letter, Rowe said that the diocese would "observe the highest possible standards in dealing with the issue of sexual misconduct," adding that "having learned a painful lesson, we are intensifying the education and training of all of our clergy, staff and volunteers who work with children."

He said that the diocese had "recently strengthened" its misconduct policy, which is based on the model policy of the Church Pension Group.

"We will continue to pursue and pray for reconciliation with all of Bishop Davis' victims, both those we now know about and those who may still come forward," Rowe said in closing his letter. "Even as we seek healing for the past, we will also dedicate ourselves to ensuring that the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania is a place where children are respected and nurtured, where people can come with their deepest wounds and vulnerabilities and be safe, and where we show the power of God's love to all among whom we live and serve."