Recently the Standing Commission on Structure, Governance, Constitution and Canons made a major contribution to the Church in the form of an interactive website that offers extensive training on the requirements of Title IV for clergy discipline.  This website should enable dioceses to more easily and effectively train participants in the clergy disciplinary process and promote a more consistent understanding of the requirements of Title IV among the dioceses.   Kudos to the Standing Commission for that fine work.

Rather than wait to see whether the beneficial effects of this enhanced training are realized, however, the Standing Commission is now asking the 79th General Convention to allow it to prepare a proposal to shift clergy discipline entirely from the dioceses to “provincial” or “church wide” courts.[1]   The rationale for this dramatic change is two fold:  (1) some dioceses are having difficulty filling the existing diocesan Title IV offices with trained persons and (2) reportedly outcomes for similar misconduct can vary from diocese to diocese.

Without first giving the Standing Commission’s fine effort to improve Title IV training and to promote a consistent understanding of Title IV a chance, it is difficult to see the need for this radical change in the approach to clergy discipline.   Currently, dioceses that are having difficulty filling their Title IV positions can share resources on a voluntary basis with other dioceses.  We don’t know how many have actually needed to do that.   And the fact that outcomes may differ from case to case and from diocese to diocese is no different than in secular court systems—and undoubtedly depends on factors completely unrelated to the suggested unfamiliarity with Title IV.  Some courts are more lenient than others; some respondents are more sympathetic than others; some lawyers are more effective than others.

But, more importantly, the proposal undercuts the responsibilities and prerogatives of the Bishops Diocesan in dealing with clergy misconduct and threatens to make the Title IV process more logistically more difficult for all participants.

A182 suggests that the proposed provincial or church wide courts would supplant the existing diocesan disciplinary bodies.  But the explanation to A183 says the proposed new courts would not require any change to the current diocesan system.  The text of A183 is not so reassuring:  the proposed constitutional amendment stipulates that clergy “shall” be tried by a court instituted by General Convention by canon and removes the existing provision for diocesan courts.  Even if the new courts would exist side-by-side with the diocesan disciplinary boards, that would only introduce more complexity and confusion into the Title IV process and offer the opportunity for mischievous “forum shopping.”

While A182 tries to reassure Bishops that they will still function as the “Bishop Diocesan” in any trial of their clergy in any new provincial or church wide court, the proposal still impinges on the canonical prerogatives of the Bishops.   Our canons expect Bishops to play a significant oversight role in the life and work of their clergy—from discernment and ordination to calling to clergy misbehavior.   Bishops need to have confidence in the ability, discretion, and judgment of the persons appointed to serve as Intake Officers and as members of the Disciplinary Boards.  A182 and A183 don’t tell us who would appoint any provincial or church wide disciplinary officers,[2] but we can be sure that those officers—who may be entirely unknown to many Bishops—would not have the same relationships with the individual Bishops as the current diocesan officers.

Then there are the extra expenses and unwieldy logistics associated with this proposal.   As the whole point of the proposal is to concentrate all the Church’s disciplinary work into from one to nine bodies, inevitably the workload of the church wide or provincial bodies will be much greater than any of the existing diocesan courts.   Imagine the difficulty of getting volunteers to fill what could become full time positions.   And if volunteers are not forthcoming, then someone may have to pay persons to devote their professional careers to this work.   Indeed, underlying these resolutions seems to be a low regard for the ability of the individual dioceses and Bishops to handle properly clergy disciplinary matters and a desire to “professionalize” the work.

Finally, imagine also the difficulty getting of widely dispersed disciplinary officials to function effectively or the extra travel costs that would be involved in bringing them together.  Imagine the difficulty for complainants, witnesses and respondents in dealing with remote disciplinary officials.  Inevitably there would be extra costs involved in bringing them face-to-face with investigators or other disciplinary officials.  One of the very reasons we have local courts in the secular legal system is to make it convenient and inexpensive for persons to obtain justice.

For these reasons the best course of action here is to give the Standing Commission’s splendid new training tools a chance to do what they were intended to do—improve the clergy disciplinary process—before we ponder scrapping the existing system.

We at The Herald know that this is a complicated and essential conversation.  Be on the lookout for a podcast with The Rev. Megan Castellan, Convener for the Subcommittee on Title IV and Training.  She will offer a different perspective.

[1] It is ironic that General Convention is being asked to consider vesting the provinces with responsibility for the discipline of the clergy in their constituent dioceses when at the same time there is a fair question whether the provinces should continue to exist and for what purposes.

[2] Another resolution, D033, may offer a clue:  it proposes to create a “Churchwide Intake Officer” position to be filled by the President of the House of Deputies, who otherwise has no Title IV responsibilities.  This resolution is problematic for other reasons.   While the Churchwide Intake Officer is supposed to function in the narrow event of a conflict of interest between the diocesan Intake Officer and the Bishop or the President of the Disciplinary Board, the amended canon would require no such showing.  Title IV already has provisions assuring impartiality of disciplinary officials. It would instead allow a complainant an unfettered election to choose with whom to lodge her complaint—an invitation to forum shopping.

Posted by Eileen O'Brien