Massachusetts Begins Healing Process in Wake of Bishop's Suicide, Revelations of Extramarital Relationships

Episcopal News Service. February 9, 1995 [95017]

Jay Cormier, Director of Communications and Editor of the Newspaper The Episcopal Times for the Diocese of Massachusetts.

(ENS) Still reeling from the suicide of its bishop, the Diocese of Massachusetts has been rocked further by revelations of the late bishop's extramarital relationships.

In a January 26 statement that was highly unusual in its candor, church leaders outlined what they have learned since the January 15 suicide of Bishop David E. Johnson.

"It is clear that Bishop Johnson was involved in several extramarital relationships at different times throughout his ministry, both as a priest and bishop -- at least some of these relationships appear to have been of the character of sexual exploitation," the statement said.

"Detailed information about these relationships is still lacking," the statement continued. "While some suspected such behavior, unfortunately no one possessed the factual information necessary to have made these situations known in any venue where appropriate action could have been taken; this is, sadly, not an unusual set of circumstances when people of prominence are involved."

The statement was signed by Bishop M. Thomas Shaw, Johnson's successor as bishop of Massachusetts; Suffragan Bishop Barbara C. Harris; Bishop Edmond L. Browning, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church; and the diocesan standing committee.

Beginning the healing process

Shaw said that the information was released with the blessing and support of Johnson's family.

"Our purpose in sharing this information now is to begin the critical process of healing," the statement related. "Our years of struggling in the church with the issue of clergy sexual exploitation and many other issues that cause such pain and division have shown us again and again that such healing can only take place when we begin to face such truths together. There is no truth in the human condition that lies beyond the reach of God's unfailing love and redemption."

In interviews with reporters, Shaw refused to comment on the identities of the women, the places where the relationships occurred, or even the number of women involved. "Part of our reason for coming forward with this is to let those who have been hurt know that we seek to offer them any help we can, and that we will protect their understandable wish to remain anonymous," he said. "For me to make any further comments would compromise their confidentiality."

Johnson, who served as bishop of Massachusetts since 1986, was found dead in his Framingham apartment of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. Authorities have ruled the death a suicide; no suicide note was found. Johnson, 61, was scheduled to join his wife, Jodie, in their new home in Leawood, Kansas, in early February. After a five-month sabbatical, Johnson was to resign officially on June 5.

Shaw also revealed that, contrary to media reports, Johnson was not under a doctor's care at the time of his death, and had not met with psychiatrists or therapists in the previous six months. Apparently, Johnson made at least one previous attempt on his own life, sometime during his ministry as rector of St. Boniface's Church in Sarasota, Florida, in the early 1980s, prior to his election as bishop of Massachusetts.

Coping with the tragedy

On February 1, 550 clergy and lay leaders of the diocese gathered at a retreat center in Newton, for a day-long conference. The program focused on the personal issues confronting individuals as a result of Johnson's suicide and the revelation of his extramarital relationships. The session also addressed ways clergy could respond pastorally to the concerns and pain of their congregations.

"We've been challenged to the very bones of our faith," the Rev. Paul LaCharite, rector of St. James Episcopal Church in Somerville, told the Boston Globe. Others suggested that the crisis could lead the diocese to a new sense of unity.

"As awful as this moment has been, it carries within it the kernel of a stronger and healthier diocese," the Rev. Samuel T. Lloyd III, rector of Trinity Church in Copley Square, told the Globe.

Dr. Maureen Van Niel, who serves as psychiatric consultant to the diocese, said the exact reasons why Johnson committed suicide will never be known.

"There are people who suffer from a disturbance in the development of their personality such that they are unable to integrate the disparate elements of their character," she explained. "The failure of integration leads to a failure of integrity. All that they can do is to completely compartmentalize and wall off part of themselves. In that enclosed area, they are utterly alone. There is no love, no accountability, no integration, and they can see no God there. This problem is rooted in some mixture of constitution and the experiences in a person's life, but it is one of the most brutal of all mental afflictions," she said.

The next step, Shaw said at the conclusion of the conference, will be to help congregations through the healing process. A "pastoral response team" is being formed to meet with congregations to help them deal with feelings and issues connected to the tragedy. Shaw said that individual team members also will be available to provide "extremely confidential counsel to anyone who believes they have a claim" as a result of sexual exploitation.

[thumbnail: Bishop's Suicide, Extrama...]