Episcopal leaders taking steps to address sex abuse by clergy

Share with others:


Print Email Read Later

When former Episcopal Bishop Donald Davis of Erie was accused of child molestation in 1994, he resigned so quietly from ministry that most other bishops didn't know why. It was the same year that an Episcopal bishop who had admitted molesting a minor was reinstated after a year's leave.

Since then, church laws have been changed to make it easier to remove offenders. Church leaders praise Erie's current Bishop Sean Rowe for publicizing new accusations last month against his now-deceased predecessor.

But victim advocates say that church law still allows offenders in ministry.

"The Episcopalians, like most denominations, have a long way to go," said David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "It's alarming that the denomination hasn't even committed to a 'one-strike' policy on paper."

But Bishop Kenneth Price of Pittsburgh believes that the policies dioceses are required to enact create a de facto one-strike rule that keeps offenders out.

"Over the years this has become a much more public concern. The House of Bishops is very concerned for the protection of alleged victims ... and the canons are very clear on what to do," said Bishop Price, who is also secretary of the House of Bishops.

In Pittsburgh, an accused priest would be suspended and civil authorities notified. If a church court upheld the accusation, the priest would be permanently removed from ministry, he said.

Some dioceses are better than others, Mr. Clohessy said. He praised Philadelphia's Diocese of Pennsylvania for removing the clergy credentials of Bishop Charles Bennison, who was accused of concealing molestation that his brother committed 35 years ago when they served the same parish. Bishop Bennison now argues that he should be reinstated because former Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning wasn't removed for keeping silent about Bishop Davis.

Bishop Bennison "may be the only case we know of in which a bishop in the U.S. lost his position because he concealed child sex crimes," Mr. Clohessy said.

Years before the Bishop Davis case, Episcopal leaders knew of the spiritual and financial danger of child sexual abuse. Reports of seven-figure lawsuits in the Catholic Church had surfaced in 1985 and remained in the news for a decade. Driving home the risk of any sexual misconduct, in 1991 a jury ordered Colorado Bishop William Frey to pay an adult woman $1.2 million for psychological harm she suffered in a consensual affair with a priest.

"I was accused of negligent supervision. It was my fault that the curate got into bed with the lady. I was supposed to have prevented that in some way or another," said Bishop Frey, 80, a former dean of Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge.

That same year an Episcopal deacon in the New Mexico-based Diocese of Navajoland said that Bishop Steven Plummer had admitted sexually abusing an adolescent boy for two years. The deacon pursued church charges against Bishop Plummer, who suspended him. The case hit the media in 1993.

The diocese sent Bishop Plummer for a psychological evaluation and Presiding Bishop Browning suspended him. After the evaluation said he was unlikely to reoffend, Bishop Browing reinstated him. When Bishop Plummer died in office in 2005, Episcopal News Service ran a glowing obituary, noting only that "he took a year's leave in 1993 after acknowledging a relationship with a teen-age boy."

During Bishop Browning's 1986-98 tenure as presiding bishop, his adviser on abuse cases was Bishop Harold Hopkins, director of the Office of Pastoral Development. Bishop Hopkins, now retired in Maine, was involved the cases of both Bishop Plummer and Bishop Davis.

Back then church law made it difficult to pursue clergy misconduct, he said. The problem was compounded because many victims wouldn't file formal complaints. Some didn't even want the abuser removed.

"For some reason they wanted the presiding bishop to know about it, but they didn't want anything done. That's very difficult. We would try to hard to convince the person that we needed a formal complaint," he said.

If there was no formal charge, "There were a number of cases where the presiding bishop went ahead and disciplined the person anyway," Bishop Hopkins said.

In Bishop Plummer's case, the fact that the victim wouldn't file a charge, the length of time since that abuse, the psychological report and a desire to let the Navajo govern themselves led Bishop Browning to allow the diocese to vote on Bishop Plummer's fate, Bishop Hopkins said. The vote was to reinstate him.

"He agreed to meet regularly with psychotherapists and ... with a bishop nearby who was appointed his supervisor," Bishop Hopkins said.

Mr. Clohessy, the victims' advocate, said that no abuser should return to ministry and that laity shouldn't vote on it because they tend to believe that "nice guys" can't be predators.

"It's a terribly reckless approach that abdicates responsibility and jeopardizes kids," he said. "Those who molest kids are usually very charismatic, charming and personable ... We've never seen congregants vote against an accused offender."

Some bishops privately questioned the reinstatement, but none spoke up, Bishop Frey said. He found it a troubling contrast with the decision, two years earlier, to strip the clergy credentials of the Rev. Wallace Frey -- no relation -- a denominational officer accused of sexual misconduct with young adult men.

"He was removed very quickly and publicly," Bishop Frey said. "So the case with Steven Plummer was weird, because the accusations were there and were publicly acknowledged, but Steven was readmitted to office. ... I don't believe that anyone challenged it publicly in the House of Bishops, but there was a lot of conversation about the difference in the way these were handled."

As Bishop Plummer's case unfolded in 1993, the Diocese of Erie sent Bishop Browning an allegation that it had received against retired Bishop Davis, who still belonged to the House of Bishops.

"The father of the girl absolutely did not want to bring any [charges]. He just wanted the bishop to be removed. And he was," Bishop Hopkins said.

"He resigned from the House of Bishops under pressure from Bishop Browning."

It was done so quietly that his good friend, retired Bishop Walter Righter of Iowa, had no idea what had happened. When he visited Mr. Davis and his wife in Florida, "Don was selling real estate and spoke of that, but nothing else. The recent stories came as a real surprise," said Bishop Righter, now an Export resident.

The Davis and Plummer cases were among the reasons that Bishop Hopkins and Sally Johnson, an attorney and canon lawyer for the Church Pension Group, led an effort to change church laws on "conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy." That's the charge for molestation.

"The canons that the church had when I started there were very vague. ... The presiding bishop didn't have any authority to take action," Bishop Hopkins said.

New laws for priests and deacons took effect in 1996. They abolished the statute of limitations for sexual abuse of anyone under 21, Ms. Johnson said.

Similar revisions for bishops were enacted over the next decade. Previously a charge against a bishop had to be signed by three bishops or 10 priests and laity. Now any victim or certain members of their immediate family could file church charges. While the old canons said that bishops could be tried only by bishops, the new ones put priests and laity on the court.

"We greatly increased the ability of victims of sexual misconduct to bring their complaints and have them considered," Ms. Johnson said.

The canons don't include a "one-strike" policy barring known offenders from ministry.

"We're certainly moving in that direction but there is no specific requirement or rule about that," she said. "We're educating about that and about the risks involved in [keeping offenders in ministry], but you do have issues of proof."

She believes that other church policies effectively discourage churches from having known offenders as staff or volunteers.

In 2003 the Episcopal Church adopted a policy requiring each diocese to enact policies for preventing and responding to child sex abuse. To help them do this, the Church Pension Group published model policies.

These include background checks, a code of conduct and supervision for all clergy, staff and volunteers who work regularly with minors.

Bishop Hopkins believes that all of that is reflected in Bishop Rowe's decision to publicize the Davis allegations. "That's the right thing to do. It doesn't matter what the embarrassment and the pain is," he said.


Ann Rodgers: arodgers@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416.


Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here