Grace Episcopal Church Alexandria, a toxic church where it’s okay to bully, lie, sue members, conduct smear campaigns, urge people to commit suicide, try to drag the dying into court, call members “domestic terrorists,” misuse funds, and where clergy commit perjury. Member giving is NOT confidential. For years, parish cash management, financial controls, governance were shambolic. Worst of all, the parish appears to welcome and protect an individual known to have boundary issues with children.
From time to time it is helpful to be exposed to an issue relating to church power in a setting entirely different from our own. After the bomb shells affecting the Church of England in the past two or three weeks, it is salutary to be reminded that struggles over power are found in churches all over the world. ,
The views expressed in this post are entirely those of the author. No court has reviewed allegations that the Rev. Robert H. Malm committed perjury in the relevant legal proceedings.
Some time ago, Stephen graciously allowed me to share my story of non-sexual abuse on this blog. With his permission, I’d like to bring you up to date on this matter.
By way of brief recap, in December 2018, the rector of my former parish, the Rev. Robert H. Malm (“Bob”) of Grace Episcopal in Alexandria Virginia, contacted the police. He allegedly complained that I had threatened him via postings on a family member’s blog, located at http://www.gracealex.net. Among his accusations were that various words, taken out of context, constituted threats against him and the church.
However, when the police declined to take action, Bob decided to file a request for a protective order with the courts. Apparently, he believed that by doing so he could shut down online criticism of his conduct. He did so with the full knowledge of diocesan officials, to whom he described me in various emails as “sick,” “twisted,” and “dysfunctional.”
To the surprise of many, the trial court ruled in Bob’s favor, despite the fact that he clearly had not met the legal requirement of an “imminent threat of death or serious bodily harm.” Indeed, Bob’s entire time in the courtroom consisted of recitations of irrelevant issues, including him asking me whether I had resigned from the parish vestry. (I did, but only Bob appears to see any connection between that and his claims that that he was threatened.)
I immediately appealed the ruling, and was represented by counsel. During the appeal, Bob was represented by Jeffery Chiow, a Washington DC-based attorney and former parish vestry member. Jeff pursued a strategy predicated on inflammatory rhetoric, including referring to me as a “domestic terrorist.” He also made various inaccurate statements of fact to the court, including that I had:
Never been licensed to practice law.
Never served as a police officer.
Violated the initial court order.
Jeff also attempted to subpoena my mother, dying of COPD, in violation of the law in her home state, which does not permit discovery in cases of protective orders absent prior leave of court. His help was to drag her, complete with oxygen tank and wheelchair, into court, where he hoped to conduct a day-long deposition. However, the relevant local courts quashed the subpoena. Meanwhile, Mom’s attorney shared his view that “this attorney is coming at you with a personal vendetta.”
Meanwhile, numerous emails came to light during discovery, suggesting that Bob had been very active behind the scenes, engaging in what I would describe as a smear campaign. But tellingly, Bob refused to specify in writing which online posts he believed to be threatening, even after the court ordered him to do so. Bob also contacted the police department, asking if there were some way they could force me to quit blogging about our conflict. To the bishop, Bob sent an email telling him that his wife and one of his daughters took the matter far too seriously — an odd assertion for someone who claims to have been threatened.
Most significantly, Bob lied during discovery. (Before you ask, yes, this would be defamatory were it not true.) In his written responses to my attorney’s interrogatories, or questions that must be answered under oath, Bob claimed that my mother, or someone purporting to be her, had repeatedly contacted him to schedule appointments, only to no-show. Leaving aside the fact that Mom loathes Bob and would have no reason to do so, that begs the question: How did a woman, dying and unable to use a phone or email, or to leave her home, contact Bob? I can assure all involved that this simply didn’t occur; nor did anyone claiming to be Mom contact Bob. This is perjury, pure and simple. Yet Bob knowingly signed the statement, required at the end of responses to interrogatories, stating under oath that his answers were true. Moreover, he used a parishioner, Jane Rosman, to notarize the relevant affidavit.
The appeal dragged on interminably, causing my Mom immense anxiety and consternation, evidenced by panic attacks, vomiting and more. I promptly informed the diocesan bishops of Bob’s actions, but did not even get the courtesy of a response.
I also filed a Title IV disciplinary complaint, only to be told in writing that Bob’s conduct is not “of weighty and material importance to the ministry of the church.” Oddly, this letter was marked as “confidential,” despite the fact that such matters are NOT, under the canons, confidential apropos complainants. This leads me to speculate that church officials either are painfully unfamiliar with canon law, or that they wish to reserve solely unto themselves the right to share information about the conflict —something that the previous bishop diocesan, Shannon Johnston, did in a letter to the parish, in which he inaccurately claimed that the matter had been previously investigated an resolved. Clearly, it has not been resolved, and the diocese previously declined in writing to investigate, so one wonders how the bishop was able to make this statement.
Late in the process, I received a settlement offer from Bob and the parish—surely a rare thing when allegations of abusive conduct are involved. (In my many years of practicing law, I never once encountered this situation. Clients were either threatened, or they weren’t, and the cases proceeding accordingly.)
The proposal offered to drop the matter if I would agree to have no further contact with Bob, and cease my online criticism of him. The former was amusing, for I had informed Bob in writing in 2018 that he was to have no further contact with me, either directly or through others. Why Bob’s attorney suddenly concluded that I might want communication with Bob escapes me, and may himself may have difficulty explaining why he felt this necessary.
Notably, the settlement proposal also rambled on for several pages about my removing blog posts, not publicly criticizing Bob’s conduct or that of the church, and more. In exchange, Bob would agree not to make any publicly derogatory comments about me. This I found to be comical, as Bob’s efforts to convince people that I am a “domestic terrorist” had been conducted almost entirely behind the scenes; thus, from my perspective this clause would allow Bob to continue his misconduct unabated.
Finally, after devoting more than $25,000 to legal fees — money I had saved for retirement — and concluding that neither Bob nor his attorney were prepared to conduct themselves in an ethical manner, I dropped my appeal.
As a result, the current protective order remains in effect through January 24, 2020. The provisions require me not to have any contact with Bob or his family — hardly an onerous requirement! I also must remain 1,000 feet away from Bob, his home, and the church during this time. As a result, I protest on various street corners in the city, often carrying a sign decrying Bob’s perjury.
I also continue to blog noisily away, and there is a new disciplinary complaint pending against Bob Malm. My bet is that the diocese will yet again find an excuse to wash its hands of the matter. The Episcopal Church says it wants to be a welcoming, inclusive church, but the fact that it is willing to permit retaliation by clergy against those who complain about possible misconduct speaks to a church that is anything but inclusive and caring.
But the real news is the damage this conflict has wrought on all involved. In the case of the parish, more than one-third of pledging units have left the church, while Sunday attendance is down 17 percent. The assistant rector left abruptly, two years before the end of her contract, possibly due to her unhappiness with Bob’s conduct.
In the case of my family, the harm is profound. My mother’s anxiety, depression, and anger, all a normal part of dying, are greatly exacerbated as she moves into the final days of her life. My same-sex spouse, Mike, received into The Episcopal Church just 15 months before this conflict broke out and married to me there, has renounced Christianity. I have left organized religion, and try though I might, I find I cannot stand to set foot in a church for any reason. Indeed, I attended the Easter Vigil at the church of my childhood, and while people were delightful, and found myself throughout the service fighting the urge to run out the door, never to return.
Many friends from church have abandoned me, and that is fine. One’s true friends remain friends, while those who lack empathy may feel that they have to choose sides, or that they know enough based on Bob’s representations to choose to end our friendship. That is their choice, and while I miss them, I wish them well and believe I probably am better off without friendships predicated on my rector’s approval. I also am sadder but wiser, now recognizing that it is possible for many to be happy, even when within an abusive system.
It also seems jarringly hypocritical that, just the day before I wrote this, Bob and Jeff likely attended the Easter Vigil, where they no doubt recited the baptismal covenant to “respect the dignity of every human being.” How one can reconcile committing perjury in court and bullying a dying woman with this promise escapes me, and I suspect I am better off not knowing the answer.
Meanwhile, I have again filed a disciplinary complaint with the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia over Bob’s perjury, only to have the case dismissed in writing on the grounds that Bob has not been criminally convicted of perjury. That’s a shocking proposition — is one to conclude that any clergy conduct is acceptable unless it results in a criminal conviction? Moreover, more than one priest has been defrocked in the diocese over conduct that is illegal, but for which there has not been a criminal conviction, including adultery with a married parishioner. So why the double standard?
I also note with some wry amusement that while the diocese again insists that I must treat the matter as confidential, the diocese itself violated the confidentiality provisions of Title IV, which went into effect January 1, 2019. These provide that the identity of the complainant must be treated as confidential. Surely, Bob could have readily surmised that I complained, but some effort to comply with church canons would have been reassuring.
Looking forward, I plan to continue to oppose Bob’s misuse of the legal system. I will not renounce my right to speak publicly about my experiences, regardless of the outcome of the current church disciplinary case. My attorney and I also are in touch, and I am evaluating further legal action against the church.
Mom’s days are rapidly dwindling, and she is, in her words, “fading fast.” It saddens me that she is unlikely to see resolution before she dies, but there is nothing one can do about it.
Will I ever return to organized faith? I don’t know, but I doubt it. The sad reality is that clergy misconduct often is like jumping headfirst into an empty swimming pool — one may be able to address some of the harmful outcomes, while remaining unable to turn back the hands of time to repair the underlying trauma.