Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Credibility and St. Dysfunction: Trouble in the Offing?

According to a recent Gallup poll, less than half of all Americans believe that clergy are honest and have high ethical standards. That number has dropped steadily since its 1985 height of 67 percent, and all evidence suggests that the number continues to decline.

What does that mean for Grace Episcopal, aka St. Dysfunction? The short answer, I think, is that the future is looking grim for the church. In addition, both Jeff Chiow and Bob Malm are likely to face ongoing damage to their personal and professional reputations over their conduct in this dispute.

At its most basic, there is the issue of Bob’s facially obvious effort to turn mere use of words into threats. For example, even a non-lawyer is quick to understand that mere use of the phrase “psychological torture” in reference to Bob’s campaign of shunning is not a threat. Bob then adds insult to injury by trying to bolster his argument with irrelevant and ludicrous assertions, like the notion that protesting in cold weather somehow suggests mental illness or a threat. (Bob obviously has never been to a protest outside the White House.)

Moreover, Bob’s lack of credibility also is reflected in his dealings with the Grace Church vestry, including his claim that Mike and I left on our own. This falsehood is incorporated into the vestry talking points that were disseminated by the current vestry. Thus, Bob asks parish leaders to participate in disseminating his statements of questionable veracity.

That in turn begs the issue: What kind of priest tries to shove out a parishioner who, like Mike, was received into The Episcopal Church just 16 months earlier? There is no answer to this question that reflects positively on Bob Malm, on the vestry, or on the parish. Ditto for Jeff “Sugarland” Chiow’s support for Bob’s actions.

Then we get the issue of Jeff Chiow’s ad hominem attacks, inflammatory rhetoric, and fabrications in his pleadings, including falsely telling the Alexandria Circuit Court that I have violated the protective order. Even if the various disciplinary boards involved in Jeff’s case give him a pass, he faces a lifetime of credibility issues. Moreover, his decision to try to sidestep Pennsylvania law and subpoena my mother, all while noisily asserting that his subpoena comports with the Interstate Depositions and Discovery Act’s provisions, may have lasting consequences for his legal career. I for one would be very uncomfortable retaining an attorney who, as here, appears to play fast and loose with the truth, and who uses the legal system to pursue what appears to some as a personal vendetta.

Jeff’s situation is what is known in chess as a double fork, in which no matter what direction you move, something bad happens. If Jeff claims, for example, that he didn’t realize that I was admitted to practice law, that begs the question: Why didn’t he take the time to do his homework before making such a claim? If, on the other hand, he claims he wasn’t recklessly indifferent to the truth or falsity of his pleadings and did, in fact, conduct due diligence, then one is left to ask whether Jeff intentionally tried to deceive the court. And in either case, he put his signature on legal pleadings that were simply untrue. No matter how you parse it, hardly a recipe for short- or long-term success.

The larger issue, of course, is that both Jeff and Bob have acted with the full blessing of the vestry and the church. As a result, the entire organization now faces the long-term challenge of having to explain to both current and potential future members how and why:
  1. It came to engage in a semi-formal campaign of shunning at Bob Malm’s direction
  2. Jeff Chiow came to support Bob Malm’s efforts to exclude Christians from the church
  3. Bob Malm, speaking through Jeff, declined my 2015 offer to settle the dispute for nothing more than Bob’s written assurances that he would leave us alone
  4. Bob Malm felt it appropriate to expressly include Mike in this conflict
  5. Bob Malm, Jeff Chiow, and the vestry concluded that hateful, inflammatory language was appropriate in Jeff’s legal pleadings
  6. It was appropriate to subpoena a dying woman, contrary to Pennsylvania law
  7. It was okay to include lies and misrepresentations in court filings, made under oath, including Jeff’s untruthful statement that I have violated the protective order, as well as his falsehoods about my having been admitted to the bar and having served as a police officer.
  8. It became appropriate to refer to church members as terrorists and the conflict as one of “domestic terrorism”
  9. It concluded that filing for a protective order was a legitimate way to shut down criticism
  10. Folks thought it would be helpful to the church over time to have the rector going around telling people that I am “unbalanced” and “dysfunctional”
  11. People thought the church would be successful with the rector publicly telling people that a former member is a terrorist
  12. Not a single person in the church, the diocese, or Rogers, Joseph O’Donnell appears to have spoken up and said, “Hold on here. This is neither ethical, nor helpful.”
No matter how you parse it, this is a case of the Emperor having no clothes. The truth, which is that Grace Church is dysfunctional and toxic, has been laid bare for all the world to see, and there’s no going back now. To make matters worse, Jeff has painted himself and the church into a corner. Any action that would rectify the situation at this juncture necessarily involves publicly admitting to really outrageous and inappropriate behavior on the part of the church and the rector.

By the way, there’s an excellent article on the long-term importance of integrity for lawyers, and its implications for one’s career, at https://www.bcgsearch.com/article/60384/Credibility-and-your-legal-career/

A screen cap of the article follows.