Court Cases May Force Church to Reform Policy Toward Sexual Offenders and Their Victims

Episcopal News Service. January 25, 1991 [91028]

Michael Barwell, Communications Officer for the Diocese of Southern Ohio

ST. LOUIS, Mo.-- "Sexual misconduct cases are increasing dramatically in the church," Bishop Alexander Stewart of the Church Pension Fund warned bishops and chancellors of Province V meeting here to exchange information on an increasingly public issue in the church -- the immoral or unethical behavior of its clergy.

Although their sessions were regularly interrupted by news bulletins from the war in the Persian Gulf, the 10 bishops and 13 chancellors from dioceses in the Upper Midwest discussed issues ranging from how to identify and confront offending clergy, to pastoral responses to congregations and individuals as victims of abuse, to liability for damages, insurance coverage, canons governing discipline, and the confidentiality of the confessional.

The data suggested a surprising breadth and frequency of clergy misconduct. Only one of the 13 dioceses represented at the meeting, for example, reported no recent or current cases of sexual misconduct. All other dioceses pointed to one or more recent situations involving sexual misconduct, embezzlement, tax evasion, or other behavior that had resulted in either civil or canonical proceedings.

Bishop Stewart, who presented both an overview of the problem as well as information about the Church Pension Fund's response, said that "since 1986 there has been a wave of lawsuits on sexual misconduct." He cited numerous examples of recently publicized settlements in several denominations that are setting precedents for judges and juries in future cases.

However, it is more than liability and monetary awards that concerned Stewart, the bishops, and chancellors, practicing attorneys who serve as legal counsel to bishops and dioceses. "Is the soul and personality any less valuable than money in a bank?" Stewart asked. "There is terrible pain in families and the parish when this sort of thing happens," he added. "How the church handles this will make or break a case -- or a bishop."

Old solutions will no longer suffice

Stewart admitted that the increase in cases is due in part to an increasing willingness on the part of victims to pursue legal action against sex offenders. In the past, he said, the usual solution was to move the clergy to another location where they often repeated their behavior. That solution, Stewart warned, will no longer suffice.

"The courts have been decent and lenient when a situation can be proven to be a first offense. But when a case reveals prior knowledge (of deviant behavior), the church becomes incredibly vulnerable.

"We are finding that most of these cases involve serial molestation," Stewart said, adding that pyschotherapy is not always effective in changing the behavior. "We don't help when we simply put people back to work after short treatment periods. We know from statistics that the recovery rate of child sexual molesters is less than three percent -- and yet some of these people have gone right back to work," sometimes even in situations involving children and youth. "We have been so compassionate, worrying about a clergy person's career, for example, that we have made ourselves vulnerable," he warned. "We have a responsibility to future victims, and we must let clergy know that if they don't respect boundaries, they will be in big trouble with state laws."

The increase in cases is more than an increase in reporting abuse, Stewart admitted. "The sexual revolution has come home to roost," he said, noting that lifestyles that would have been grounds for dismissal 50 years ago are now accepted behavior -- as long as the activity is not openly flamboyant. He noted that a number of seminaries and bishops allow people known to have potentially abusive sexual behavior to graduate and be ordained.

Victims seek assurance 'this will never happen again'

When abuse is uncovered, especially in cases of child abuse, Stuart said, "We are convinced that what the victim's family wants is not money (in compensatory damages), but vengeance and justice and assurance that this will never happen again."

The church's response must be immediate and open, experts recommended. Peter Rossiter, chancellor of the Diocese of Chicago, presented a model developed by the Rev. Chilton Knudsen, director of the diocese's Office of Pastoral Care, and the Rev. Carol Amadio, assistant chancellor. The response program includes an open parish meeting to disclose the offense and detailed, step-by-step responses offering consistent counseling to overcome the feelings of hurt, anger, and reprisal that automatically arise in the victims.

Both the chancellors and bishops expressed frustration that dismissing, disciplining, and deposing offending clergy is difficult, costly, and timeconsuming under the current canons of the church. If an offending clergy does not admit the crime when confronted, presentment must be made to an ecclesiastical court for trial. Cases can drag on for months, further damaging a congregation. Some congregations, especially larger, well-endowed parishes, many times decide it is less costly to "buy out" the offender.

The group discussed the possibility of coming to General Convention in 1994 with a draft of revised disciplinary canons. It may be joined by several other chancellors' networks in the Episcopal Church who have expressed similar frustrations, said Bishop William Wantland of Eau Claire, a lawyer and former chancellor who organized the meeting.