General Convention Will Respond to Shock Waves Sent by Cases of Sexual Misconduct

Episcopal News Service. June 15, 1994 [94124]

David Skidmore, Director of Communications for the Diocese of Chicago

There are many fault lines coursing through American society -- AIDS, abortion, health care, homelessness, political corruption, racism, violence against children -- but none that seems to stir or rend our psyches as much as sexual misconduct.

Sexual misconduct is now commanding the public's attention and generating calls for action, whether in the home, the workplace, the schools, the Congress, or the sports and entertainment industries. Few institutions are immune, least among them the church.

The Episcopal Church has been jolted by the shock waves of sexual abuse, the first tremor occurring in September 1991 when a female parishioner filed a $1.2 million sexual exploitation lawsuit against the Diocese of Colorado and then Bishop William Frey. The woman, Mary E. Tenantry, alleged that she had been coerced into a sexual relationship with her rector who was counseling her at the time. After a Denver district court found in favor of Tenantry, the diocese appealed to the Colorado Supreme Court which last November affirmed two of the three claims.

A year later the Episcopal Church was again in the news, when the vice-president of the church's House of Deputies admitted having sexual relations with several young male adults and a teenage boy of his parish for a number of years. The Rev. Wallace Frey, 55, married and rector of a Central New York parish, resigned his post and the ordained ministry after being confronted with the allegations.

Since then three other cases have rocked the church. In May 1993 Bishop Steven Plummer of Navajoland and the third Native American bishop consecrated in the church, went on a year's leave of absence following a deacon's disclosure that Plummer had sexual relations with a male minor for a two-year period ending in 1987. Plummer, who was consecrated bishop in 1990, was recently reinstated as Navajoland's bishop by Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning after Browning determined that Plummer had made satisfactory progress in therapy and following consultations with Navajoland representatives.

A month after the Plummer case broke, Suffragan Bishop-elect Antoine Campbell of the Diocese of Virginia was accused of engaging in adultery, a charge he was later acquitted of by an ecclesiastical court in his home diocese of South Carolina. When a subsequent charge was filed by a different woman, Virginia's standing committee persuaded Campbell to withdraw from the consent process.

The most recent case unfolded in February when the dean of Nashotah House seminary in southern Wisconsin disclosed allegations of sexual misconduct involving four former seminarians and a visiting priest. The charges were made by the son of a former Nashotah House graduate who alleged that between 1987 and 1990 he and other male minors were enticed into sexual relations, in some cases with alcohol, drugs and pornography, by the five men, four of whom are now priests in other dioceses. As of June two individuals had been formally charged: the Rev. Eugene Maxey of Chesire, England, and Charles R. McCray, a Long Beach, California, school teacher.

Zero Tolerance

This wake-up call has prompted church leaders and institutions to pledge zero tolerance toward instances of sexual misconduct, and to push for programs to prevent its recurrence. A joint statement by Browning and House of Deputies President Pamela Chinnis following the misconduct disclosure of Wallace Frey settled any doubts on the church's commitment: "Sexual abuse and the betrayal of pastoral trust cannot be tolerated with the clergy or among the lay leaders of the church," they said.

In addition, the chief liability insure for dioceses and parishes, the Church Insurance Company (CIC), has been deeply involved in developing new standards regarding sexual misconduct. As the number of sexual misconduct claims soared from a handful in the early 1980s to 39 by 1992, and as awards and settlements topped $6 million, CIC capped its coverage and imposed a strict set of guidelines for personnel management and pastoral counseling, including requiring background investigations on all staff and volunteers, and limiting counseling by clergy and lay pastoral caregivers to six lessons after which they must refer their clients to a professional counselor.

Somewhat overshadowed by the Church Insurance Company's initiatives was the work of a group that laid much of the groundwork for the CIC's tougher policies. The Committee on Sexual Exploitation, established by the 1991 General Convention, spent the past three years developing a preventive education curriculum on sexual abuse, exploitation and harassment, and a suggested code of conduct for pastoral relationships. Their work -- educational materials to supplement the CIC's guidelines and a manual published in June -- shares much of the CIC approach in defining terms and proposing prevention strategies. But it differs on two important scores: it's prescriptions are only recommendations -- dioceses suffer no formal repercussions for not adopting them (to ignore CIC guidelines could mean loss of coverage) -- and its interest lies less in protecting the institution and more in the wellness of the parties involved.

This more proactive approach emerges in the committee's recommendations to General Convention for the creation of a toll-free 800 number to serve as a resource referral line for sexual misconduct victims, and for the committee to continue its education and policy development work through the next triennium. Its tasks would include arranging training for the 800-number response team, and assisting the presiding bishop's Office of Pastoral Development in educating ordained and lay leaders on the importance of addressing issues of sexual misconduct.

As the Rev. Canon Margo Maris, the committee's co-chair and canon to the ordinary for the Diocese of Minnesota, explained it, the committee's proposals are "a way of making the church safer so we can be more healthy people." CIC, on the other hand, has a more narrow focus, she said, one aimed at limiting the liability exposure of dioceses and parishes. "We put it together from the victim's point of view, and they did it from the institutions' point of view. Two different perspectives."

Although CIC has had higher visibility with its new rules for liability coverage, it is not the leader in pushing for changes on how the church handles sexual misconduct, Maris contended. In 1988, four years before CIC got involved, an ad hoc committee was formed by Bishop Harold Hopkins, who had been appointed that year as the church's officer of pastoral development.

Maris, who was part of that group, said it was their work that led to the 1991 General Convention resolution declaring sexual abuse and harassment to be "abuses of trust, a violation of the baptismal covenant, contrary to Christian character and therefore wrong." And it was at an early meeting of that group that the Rev. David Rider, now general manager for the CIC's Medical Trust and a key architect of its sexual misconduct liability guidelines, learned about the clinical aspects of sexual misconduct and the preventive procedures that are at the core of the insurance company's new policy.

Different motives

Bringing Rider into their circle helped with later collaboration between the sexual exploitation committee and members of a task force drafting the CIC's guidelines, Maris said. Different motives -- the insurance company's chief concern is protecting assets while the church's is protecting souls, she noted -- hasn't meant separate tracks, just different destinations, the committee's being the closest to the frontier.

"I think we will get what we want and they'll get what they want," Maris said. "They're asking for a change of behavior and we're asking for a change of heart."

Hopkins, who has remained as pastoral development officer for the national church, noted that both CIC and the sexual exploitation committee have emphasized prevention in their work. But like Maris, he sees a fundamental difference in their goals. "The thing a lot of people are missing is that the Church Insurance Company is not laying ethical and moral guidelines on the church," said Hopkins. "What it is doing is saying if you want insurance coverage this is what you must do."

In contrast, the committee is viewing sexual misconduct systemically so that the full impact on the victims' families, the congregation and the diocese is more easily grasped. Health and wellness are the primary concerns, Hopkins said.

That will be an area getting more of the committee's attention if the convention extends its life through the next triennium. One possibility, said Maris, is encouraging dioceses to form supervision groups for clergy which would help rectors and vicars spot unhealthy dynamics building in their congregations. "You want to get them on your side. By that I mean toward and health and non-exploitative behavior," Maris reported.

It appears that the committee's work on guidelines is receiving strong favorable reaction throughout the church. Reactions from the church's bishops and chancellors, and the National Network of Episcopal Clergy Associations to the manual and curriculum have been 90 percent positive, Maris said.

Process of consensus-building

The favorable response reflects the committee's decision to couch the proposals in advisory language and avoid attempting a rewrite of church canons, observes the Rev. Chilton Knudsen, pastoral care officer for the Diocese of Chicago and a national consultant on issue of sexual misconduct. The idea was to first build awareness, and hopefully agreement, among the grassroots, she said, before attempting implementation through the canons.

"This is a process of consensus-building, one that is slow and gentle and couched in sensitive, field-test language," Knudsen said, one which 10 years from now should bring all parties to one mind on preventing and responding to sexual misconduct. "It would be inconsistent the way we do business in the church right now to impose from the top down a hard and fast policy without the process of consensus," she added.

The fallout from a top-down approach is evident in the initial reaction of clergy to CIC's conditions for liability coverage. "There's a feeling among clergy that they are being unjustly accused," noted Bishop Hopkins. They see themselves as being unfairly singled out when in fact few clergy are offenders or prone to misconduct.

"Many feel particularly vulnerable. They may not understand the context out of which this has risen," Hopkins said. "So there is a backlash."

However, in her work, Knudsen is finding that many clergy are supportive of the new guidelines, particularly those called to a parish which has experienced incidents of sexual abuse or exploitation. Because of the pent-up anger among parishioners, "they get crucified for the behavior of a predecessor," she said. They can then appreciate the need for stronger preventive measures. As for lay people, they are uniformly endorsing the insurance guidelines, and in fact, she said, are astounded when they learn the church has lagged behind other non-profit institutions on this issue, notably the Girls Scouts and Boy Scouts.

Tough attitude is necessary compromise

The watchdog mentality on this issue may run against the church's customary attitude of trust, but it is a necessary compromise given the decades of laxity and accommodation towards misconduct, believes Hopkins. "I think we've been sloppy in the church. Obviously, we've been sloppy because we've gotten some bad apples."

Hopkins conceded that there is the danger of typecasting clergy as potential predators. "That's a very small number of clergy who are offenders. The trouble is they often have more than one victim and they are repetitive."

The more typical situation is where a clergy person is undergoing tension in their marriage or ministry which leads to poor judgements in pastoral relationships. "That's the kind of situation where you can help clergy take care of themselves," and help congregations tend to both their health and that of the clergy, Hopkins said.

That is the committee's emphasis, one that fortunately many dioceses have already adopted, Hopkins pointed out. The initial resentment toward the insurance mandates and the committee's proposed conduct code will fade, he predicted, as the initiatives reduce the rate of misconduct. "I think we'll see down the road fewer cases. People will think 10 times before they do anything."

As it stands now though, the popular perception is that sexual misconduct is escalating. But this is a misreading, according to Knudsen and Maris. In the 10 year span from 1982 to 1992, the CIC did see sexual misconduct claims surge from two to 39 but the fact is that most of the incidents inspiring those claims pre-dated the allegations by anywhere from a few years to a decade or more, they noted. They're emerging now because victims feel more confident that their complaints will be acknowledged, and that the church will take a firmer stand toward offenders.

"The number of new cases, which doesn't mean new emergence of cases but new offenses, this is declining," said Knudsen. Three factors are at play, she said. One is the publicity showered on sexual misconduct which has encouraged people to come forward with their histories. The others are a more supportive attitude by church leaders towards victims rights, and education initiatives that stress prevention strategies.

Another change, Knudsen said, is that more reports of sexual harassment are popping up which she interprets as a sign the church is becoming healthier since the alarm threshold for pathological behavior has been lowered.

"In other words, the healthier the system is, the clearer it is about acceptable limits, and therefore we are seeing more cases where there is a sexual harassing element."

From stonewalling to intervention

For Maris the church's turnabout from stonewalling and whitewashing misconduct to acknowledging its seriousness and trying to prevent it was largely propelled by the influx of women into the clergy. As more women were ordained, she said "they pointed out there would be consequences to this and that the church should be a safer place for people to have a relationship with God."

In the past clergy were able to take advantage of their authority and exploit people under their care without fear of consequences, Maris pointed out. "This time there are consequences," she said.

Without the pressure from women both lay and ordained, reforms would have come more slowly if at all, Maris contended. Progress has been more revolutionary than evolutionary. "Someone had to stand up and say, 'No more.'"

The groundwork for this turnabout was started in 1981 when the Diocese of Minnesota started a clergy health and wellness program. Five years later when she handled her first misconduct allegation in the diocese -- a case involving a retired bishop as offender -- there was a plan in place to address it. A key part of their philosophy and success has been this linkage between conduct and spiritual wellness. Defining sexual misconduct purely in terms of ecclesiastical authority and discipline misses the boat, she said.

"It's a bigger issue. It's a societal issue about accountability and consequences." And, Maris added, it's also about "the consequences of our faith -- the boundaries between our leaders and members."