Bishops lament and confess the church’s role in sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse

By Melodie Woerman
Posted Jul 5, 2018

Central New York Bishop DeDe Duncan-Probe, left; Central Pennsylvania Bishop Audrey Scanlon, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, Olympia Bishop Greg Rickel and House of Bishops Vice President and El Camino Real Bishop Mary Gray-Reeves pray July 4 during the House of Bishop’s “Liturgy of Listening” session at General Convention in Austin, Texas. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

[Episcopal News Service – Austin, Texas] In a hushed worship space in the Austin Convention Center late in the afternoon of July 4, bishops of the Episcopal Church stood and collectively offered laments and confession for the church’s role in sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse in a service called a “Liturgy of Listening.”

The service featured 12 stories – six from women and six from men – from victims of sexual misconduct perpetrated by someone in the church. These were among 40 stories submitted by people in May in response to a bishops’ request for reflections from those hurt by the church.

House of Bishops Vice President and El Camino Real Bishop Mary Gray-Reeves, center, reads one of the 12 stories that formed the backbone of the “Liturgy of Listening” July 4. Standing at the altar with her are Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and Diocese of Olympia Bishop Greg Rickel. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

Each story was read by a bishop of the same gender as the victim, in first-person accounts of what had happened to that person and how the church’s response had failed her or him. The stories included a church employee made uncomfortable by lewd comments from the male rector; an ordinand placed in a sexually awkward position by her bishop; a young man seduced by his priest’s wife; a woman raped by a priest from whom she was receiving spiritual direction; and a choir boy subjected to emotional, physical and sexual abuse. One included a plea that bishops care for all vulnerable people in their dioceses and “take seriously the plague of sexual misconduct that affects our branch of the Jesus Movement.”

The service was planned by Central New York Bishop DeDe Duncan-Probe, who chairs the House of Bishops’ Pastoral Response to #MeToo Planning Team. In remarks in Episcopal News Service in late June, she said the service was designed to help set a framework for General Convention’s consideration of resolutions dealing with sexual misconduct, exploitation and gender disparity. These sins occur “because we aren’t seeing the image of Christ in one another,” she told ENS.

This format was chosen, Duncan-Probe said, because “Episcopalians believe in the transformational power of liturgy.”

Central New York Bishop DeDe Duncan-Probe speaks to attendees before the July 4 “Liturgy of Listening.” She chaired the House of Bishops’ Pastoral Response to #MeToo Planning Team. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

After the service opened with two reflective songs, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said that “the church has failed her people.” He said that as successors to the apostles, bishops “hold a particular responsibility to acknowledge the past and help the church move forward.” He said the service would be “a sacred container” for stories of abuse that never should have happened. He added, “There is pain in these stories, there is courage in the people who have offered them.” He then called on bishops and the entire church to honor the courage and vulnerability of victims by being committed to the work of repentance and reconciliation.

Full ENS coverage of the 79th meeting of General Convention is available here.

Several hundred people attended the 90-minute service, and almost 1,000 others watched via livestream on the General Convention Media Hub.

Planners also had teams of people available to provide emotional or spiritual support to anyone who needed it. As the service ended in silence, some people wiped away tears and others hugged those nearby.

— Melodie Woerman is director of communications for the Diocese of Kansas and is a member of the ENS General Convention reporting team.


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Comments (4)

  1. Joe Ashby says:

    It was a wonderful service and a very positive step forward. However, it was just a beginning and action will be necessary to prove that this was not just a show without true substance. Those in positions of authority and especially those in the Office of Presiding Bishop who have been abusive to victims/survivors and have colluded to protect their colleagues from the consequences of their action must be held accountable.

  2. Elaine Jenkins says:

    I agree, it is a beginning. Are you willing to start a register of clergy that are guilty of misconduct that is publically available so parishes can consult it when doing a search for new clergy?

  3. Susan Delaney MD, MS says:

    I was very pleased that Pastoral Care teams of bishops, therapists and others were standing by to listen to survivor’s stories and pray with them. Survivors have not, in the past, been able to tell their stories with confidence that a pastoral response will ensue as they tell of being shattered by clergy sex abuse. As the 12 stories read illustrated, survivors often feel absolutely alone with their shattering. As the stories illustrate, the shattering of body, mind and faith often leads to poor academic and occupational functioning; it can lead to mental health problems and even to suicide. Bravo to the church for committing to good pastoral care to survivors.

  4. Eric Bonetti says:

    I’m somewhat dubious. My own case, involving non-sexual emotional, relational, and spiritual abuse by an Episcopal priest has been brushed off by the Diocese of Virginia multiple times, with officials stating that these matters are “not of weighty and material importance to the ministry of the church.” The church has even taken a pass on specific and credible evidence of perjury on the part of the priest.

    If perjury isn’t enough to get the church involved, I cannot imagine what is.

    Talk is cheap, but it’s action that matters.

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