Thursday, May 9, 2019

Papal Law on Reporting of Abuse Underscores Problems in The Episcopal Church and Diocese of Virginia



Earlier today, the pope issued a decree mandating various changes to abuse reporting in the Catholic Church. Among the changes:
  • Anyone in the church, lay or clergy, who believes or suspects that abuse has occurred is required to report it to church officials.
  • Required reporting of coverup, defined as “actions or omissions intended to interfere with or avoid” civil or canonical investigations.
  • Whistleblower protection, albeit limited in scope.
  • An increase in the age of consent from 16 to 18.
  • The inclusion of possession of child pornography in the list of offenses.
  • Reporting to civil authorities per local law.
  • The ability to report to regional metropolitans in situations that may implicate a bishop.
  • The ability to report coverup and other abuse of power directly to Rome.
  • The requirement that victims be treated with respect.
These measures, while well-intended, are likely to be ineffective, and every bit as useless as Title IV as implemented in the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia.

As it stands, the Episcopal Church’s Title IV does not prevent retaliation against whistleblowers. Instead, it provides for anonymity in the complaint process, and ostensibly protects opposition to practices prohibited by Title IV. This protection is almost entirely illusory, however, as it provides no definition of prohibited conduct. Thus, shunning and other retaliation such as Bob Malm’s conduct towards me and my family almost certainly would be ignored. Moreover, the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia refuses to see retaliation as within the penumbra of “conduct unbecoming,” so it refuses to address retaliation occurring before the effective date (January 1, 2019) of the recent changes to Title IV. Further, thus far the diocese is ignoring the whistleblower provisions, as evinced by its identifying me to Bob Malm in its most recent correspondence. (In fairness, my opposition to Bob’s conduct is hardly a secret, but some effort to adhere to the requirements of Title IV would have been appreciated. Moreover, it’s laughable that the diocese tried, in its correspondence with me, to insist on confidentiality, even though the letter itself violated confidentiality.)

Another issue with Title IV is that there is no meaningful appeal beyond the diocesan level. As it stands, +Todd Ousley and the rest of the crowd at 815 (church headquarters) may, if pushed, go through the motions of a Title IV case against a bishop, but unless he or she intentionally runs you over in a church parking lot (witnesses required), you can bet your bottom dollar that nothing will come of it.

As to treating victims with respect, that falls within the purview of Title IV’s entirely illusory “pastoral response,” which is required any time a complaint is made to a Title IV intake officer. Thus far, the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia consistently refuses to implement that provision, even in cases where a parish is traumatized by a successful Title IV removal of clergy. (Yes, I am thinking of St. Thomas’ McLean. In that case, the diocese did next to nothing to care for the parish. While +Shannon later apologized and said that its refusal to get involved was based on the advice of legal counsel, the damage is done. And this effort at protecting the organization at the expense of laity who support it is damning in the message it sends to those of us in the pews.)

Similarly, reporting to Rome sounds good on paper, right up until you consider that George Pell, the former number 3 at the Vatican, also was an abuser. Does anyone really think that some fat cat in Rome, immersed in the system, is really going to do anything about abuse in some remote corner of the world?

Equally problematic is the requirement that coverups be reported. Great idea, but with no sanctions or penalties set forth in the statute, including for dioceses that fail to implement the new provisions, this one is every bit as toothless at Title IV.

The heart of the problem, both in The Episcopal and Catholic Churches, is neatly summarized in the comments of Cardinal Cupich, who said of the new law, “this past year has taught us that the systematic failures in holding clerics of all rank responsible are due in large measure to flaws in the way we interact and communicate with each other in the college of bishops.” This tendency in all hierarchies to minimize problems and to see criticism of individual conduct as criticism of the organization is alive and well in both churches, and I see no signs that either organization is doing anything to change this phenomena. Indeed, it will only be when churches recognize that this tendency is destroying organized religion from within that they will again find secure footing.

In other words, the more things change, the more they stay the same, and the creaking, shuddering constructs that make up the Episcopal and Catholic churches continue their rapid unraveling.