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By the Rev. Dr. Mary Thorpe
Director of Transition Ministry, Diocese of Virginia
“Grant that in all things [the priest] may serve without reproach, so that your people may be strengthened and your Name glorified in all the world.” -Prayer for the Ordination of a Priest (The Book of Common Prayer)
That phrase “serve without reproach” implies a standard of behavior, one that is described in more detail in the ordination liturgy. Whenever there is a standard of behavior, there is usually a mechanism to hold one to account. Most professional disciplines have some mechanism for accountability. After all, we are human. More often than we care to admit, we stand alongside St. Paul: “For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate,” (Romans 7:14-15). While sin is never a good thing, transgression becomes more than a personal matter when it occurs in the context of ordained ministry, because of the cleric’s power to do great harm. We are held to a higher standard, rightfully so.
And so the Episcopal Church has created a mechanism for accountability for clerics, providing the opportunity for those who feel they have been harmed in some way by an ordained person to name the harm and seek justice. This mechanism is the canonical process described in Title IV of the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church.
The canon has evolved in recent years. Before, it followed the model of a military tribunal. In recent years, it has been oriented in a more spiritual direction: that of a way to seek reconciliation and healing while still holding priests and deacons to account. This pendulum swing has been difficult. It is impossible to craft an accountability process that can handle all possible situations. The variables are endless. Even so, there are ongoing attempts to modify or amend the process to create safety, clarity, due process, transparency, confidentiality—and these aims sometimes compete and wrestle with each other.
This General Convention is once again addressing resolutions that do precisely this. In light of the #MeToo movement, a number of resolutions have been introduced creating a safe space for filing claims under Title IV and, for a limited period of time, having no statute of limitations for those offenses that are sexual in nature. In the interest of avoiding conflicts of interest, proposals related to external or church-wide intake processes have been offered. In the interest of transparency, proposals related to exclusion of nondisclosure agreements are being considered. Other proposals are on the table as well. In many cases, there are unintended consequences and conflicting behaviors. Attorneys, bishops, complainants, respondents, all see these proposals through their particular lens, and wrestle with the implications of each change. It is slow work.
Here’s the challenge: A linear process such as the military tribunal model is relatively simple to understand and the protocol is well-defined. But an accountability loop that has as its aim reconciliation and healing is a different thing, because we know that the work of reconciliation is non-linear. It requires recursive loops and multiple paths, because the seeking of truth and the response to offense is slow, messy work. In the words of Paul again, this time in 1 Corinthians 13, we “see in a mirror, dimly…”
And yet there is the never-ending need to try. Justice, mercy, healing – this is the work of the Church, even when the Church is attempting to rectify offense and pain within itself.
What results will we see from the deliberations on changes to Title IV? Some greater clarity and change, perhaps, especially in support of those who have been victims of sexual offenses. Without a doubt, many questions to explore further, to try and make the process less abstruse. The Committee on Safeguarding and Title IV has a daunting task: to see not in a mirror dimly, but with a brighter, clearer light, for those who are accused and for those who have been hurt. If we cannot make this happen in our Church, after all, how can we make it happen in the world?