By Jeanine Driscoll
At the 2018 General Convention, the House of Bishops offered a Listening Liturgy to acknowledge and lament the pain caused by clergy and others who hold religious authority in our church who have violated sacred trust by being the agents of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and sexual abuse. But more than acknowledge and lament this pain, the bishops committed to the work of ending such pain-inducing behaviors churchwide. Five years later, Julia Ayala Harris, the President of the House of Deputies, has alleged an experience of sexual violence inflicted on her by a bishop of the church, on the very day of her election. As a priest and psychologist who worked with bishops, priests, and laity on creating the 2018 Listening Liturgy, I want to share some thoughts about what our church needs to do now to facilitate healing, including taking action to prevent further violence upon people’s bodies and souls. For the wounds inflicted by those in positions of trust and leadership in religious institutions result in a relational trauma like no other!
Given the recent emergence of information regarding the events associated President Ayala Harris, many people who have suffered similar forms of violence and relational trauma within our church and beyond are experiencing a reactivation of that trauma. One of the consequences of relational trauma is that trust in the relationship and in those involved in the relationship shatters. Words of remorse that ostensibly own how the institutional church and its governance continue to injure and alienate others will mean little without action that demonstrates that the top priority of the House of Bishops and individual bishops is ensuring the safety of God’s children. The promise of prayers and support, while well-meaning, will ring hollow. Again, the House of Bishops must generate and implement specific actions that indicate in word and deed that bishops have the safety and well-being of God’s beloved as their number one commitment. Creating, holding, reinforcing safe spaces for all people in the church’s activities of liturgy, governance, and fellowship is the most basic task of any and all clergy.
We often refer to ourselves as members of a church family. Healthy families ensure the safety and well-being of all their members. Unfortunately, church families and our families in which we were born or live now often fall short in keeping their members safe. A primary reason is that parents and leaders want to keep the family together despite their members’ hurtful behavior. The drive to demonstrate unity or harmony overrides the necessity of keeping all members of the family safe. Similarly, parents and leaders confuse understanding the reasons one behaves in hurtful ways with allowing the behavior to continue by taking an approach of cheap compassion: “Well, he’s under so much stress” or “She’s had a rough day” or “They were abused in the family they grew up in, so …” It’s cheap compassion because it appears to offer understanding, yet it takes no action except to collude with and reinforce the hurtful behavior. The hurtful behaviors, including cheap compassion, shatter trust.
Thus, an immediate action for the wider leadership of our church is figuring out how it can begin to rebuild trust within the family, the body of Christ. A basic action that can contribute to trust being rebuilt is absolute transparency in thought, word, and deed.
Let’s say there is a rupture in a committed, coupled relationship, due to infidelity. Trust is shattered because of this instance of relational trauma. A primary task for the couple is rebuilding trust. This happens through absolute and even tedious transparency. The one who had the affair discloses who was involved, when, for how long, and where. In addition, if that person were to go on a business trip, they would agree to check in with the other partner at mutually agreed times throughout the day and evening, as well as provide itineraries of travel, meetings, and recreation. Similarly, the one who had the affair tells their partner about any other interactions with the affair partner: I ran into so-and-so at the airport or So-and-so sent me a text. Here, read it. I’ve since blocked that person and ought to have done so immediately.
The commitment to the practice of transparency is one of the ingredients in the healing balm. The practice of transparency provides a structured, agreed upon paper trail that also results in accountability.
Applying this to the practice of transparency that our church desperately needs would involve church leaders disclosing what happened, how or if Title IV was implemented, and if so, the outcome. The vague reference to a pastoral intervention would imply, typically, that the respondent, in this case the bishop, faces consequences commiserate with the offensive behavior. What were the consequences? Who made the decisions about the consequences and how they would be implemented? The complainant, the President of the House of Deputies, is typically consulted. Was Ayala Harris consulted? If so, by whom?
Might the bishops, in their next meeting, consider generating immediate steps or actions to encourage a genuine practice of transparency of Title IV proceedings? For instance, an immediate step would be documenting the rationale for decisions made during Title IV proceedings. Without such documented, shared transparency, it appears that the consequences for the respondent are a wrist-slap. Maybe some of you are reading this and thinking, Well, what about confidentiality?
Confidentiality is not an absolute in Title IV. In fact, Title IV encourages disclosure of information that is in the service of astute, reasoned, and compassionate pastoral care for the individuals involved. There’s a kind of double-edged sword in Title IV. Compared to the previous iteration of discipline within the church, Title IV limits the exercise of episcopal power, and, at the same time, it relies on the bishop to exercise discernment in disclosing details. Yet the reality is, of course, that any bishop or bishop’s staff may misinterpret, misuse, or sidestep the protocol of Title IV. Borrowing from a saying of the 12-step tradition, “Title IV works, if you work it.”
Another aspect of transparency is gathering and training a cohort of intake officers and investigators for Title IV complaints. One intake officer for the national church is better than none. My hunch is that many dioceses, of varying sizes, have more than one intake officer. Transparency also requires in the training of intake officers and investigators the identification of conflicts of interests, as well as multiple relationships, especially in smaller dioceses. Continuing clarification of roles and tasks of intake officers and investigators is essential.
Prolonged Title IV proceedings obfuscate the practice of transparency. In the wider church as well as local dioceses, Title IV cases must be conducted in a timely manner. Efficient processing of Title IV complaints and cases likely correlates with having intake officers and investigators who are well-versed in Title IV. In addition to having intake officers, investigators, and a discipline board, the wider church would do well to consider establishing for itself a pastoral response team. In turn, the wider church’s leaders might do well to issue a strong recommendation to local dioceses to create pastoral response teams.
A pastoral response team works alongside the discipline board, offering pastoral care to all involved in Title IV proceedings. Pastoral response teams ought to be considered as essential in practicing restorative justice, which is at the heart of Title IV. Moreover, because the composition of a pastoral response team consists of laity and clergy who are mental health clinicians, the pastoral response team can advise the bishop and canon regarding remedial interventions. Pastoral response teams help the bishop and canon plan and implement congregational meetings, and can provide follow-up pastoral care and coaching to congregational leaders. Furthermore, members of the pastoral response team can also serve as chaplains to the discipline board and to those involved in conference and hearing panels. Might the wider church’s leaders implement a grouping of provinces that would have investigators, discipline boards, and pastoral response teams to whom the Rev. Barbara Kempf and the Rt. Rev. Todd Ousley would delegate cases?
Another immediate action to encourage transparency and accountability is considering how the House of Bishops processes findings of Title IV proceedings involving their peers. Do the bishops talk about how a case reflects the culture within the House of Bishops, the cultures implicit and explicit? Does the House of Bishops consider how a case and its outcomes might inform and guide the psychological and spiritual work that needs to be done within the house? For instance, who asks, “These cases indicate that maladaptive behaviors continue; what must we do to prevent the recurrence of this behavior?” And who asks, “These maladaptive behaviors of members of our house are symptomatic … of what are they symptomatic?” In practice, this could be a corporate examination of conscience. And, like any examination of conscience, the process and result involve what we can do differently, with God’s help, the next day.
The examination of conscience could include the three renunciations from the Examination of candidates for Baptism. It seems in our church members frequently cite the Baptismal promise involving respecting the worth and dignity of all human beings. And it is meet and right and our bounden duty to do so. The three renunciations could deepen corporate and individual examinations of conscience. Moreover, our church could use the renunciations as standards against which to assess actions, policies, and procedures. And these renunciations remind us that we constantly must discern what is motivating our behaviors. After all, as Mark Betley remarked to me this summer, the powers and principalities, divine and demonic, use the same canvas of human intention and behavior. Examinations of conscience, as well as prayerful mindfulness of the three renunciations, provide soul-binding guardrails to corporate and individual actions.
Finally, an attitude that will undermine rebuilding trust is expressed by the following: “Change takes a long time” or “Nothing can be done about the past” or “People have to be patient” or “The church moves at glacial speeds” or “Time is our friend.” Our church’s history demonstrates that this attitude, also called gradualism, has colluded with and reinforced systemic oppression. Such an attitude epitomizes privileged voices and lives. Rebuilding trust requires us to ask, “How is the past showing up in the present?” and “How can we make adjustments and changes that are consistent with our baptismal vows and our fidelity to the gospel of Jesus Christ?”
Bodies and souls within the body of Christ have been transgressed. Healing action is necessary, now. One prayerful acknowledgment of the necessity of this healing work, recited by the bishops and witnessed by those gathered at the 2018 Listening Liturgy, follows:
The Church community is called to be a sanctuary where all are safe and honored as beloved children of God. Tonight, we acknowledge the Church has failed her people. Bishops have failed members of the Church …. we will not get this work perfect, we never will, but we can and do commit to striving at all times to live fully into our vows, our baptismal vows and our ordination vows, and when we fail, to hold one another accountable, to work for justice, and to work for reconciliation with God and one another. This is the work of the Church. This is the work of all God’s people. This is the work we are called to by our loving, liberating, life-giving God.
The Rev. Dr. Jeanine Driscoll is a priest who serves as the co-chair of the Pastoral Response Team for the Diocese of the Rio Grande & works as a licensed psychologist providing psychotherapy to couples and individuals and consultations with clergy and clinicians.