[Episcopal News Service] The House of Bishops on Sept. 20 invited two top church attorneys to provide an overview of The Episcopal Church’s Title IV disciplinary process for bishops and a timeline for how that process was followed after House of Deputies President Julia Ayala Harris accused retired Oklahoma Bishop Ed Konieczny of misconduct in July 2022.
The presentation was led by Mary Kostel, chancellor to Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, and J.B. Burtch, legal counsel for the Disciplinary Board for Bishops, and was followed by a question-and-answer period moderated by Bishop Todd Ousley, who heads the Office of Pastoral Development. Ousley had previously served as intake officer for complaints against bishops, until Curry assigned that role to a newly created position on Aug. 1.
Ayala Harris went public with her case last month, revealing that she had been “physically overpowered” by Konieczny, who also allegedly made “inappropriate verbal statements” to her at the 80th General Convention. The church’s investigation of Ayala Harris’ complaint ended in a “pastoral response” but no disciplinary action against Konieczny, whom Ayala Harris didn’t name, though his name later became public. Konieczny has denied engaging in any misconduct or saying anything inappropriate.
Several female bishops from Western United States dioceses asked that the Title IV process be added to the agenda of this Sept. 19-22 meeting, which is being held online. (A livestream was provided for reporters.) Kostel began her presentation by saying the goal is not to relitigate the House of Deputies president’s complaint but rather to explain “how it unfolded procedurally.”
“My best understanding is that neither of the parties involved at this moment are interested in relitigating the matter,” Kostel said. “So, the point of the chronology is to hopefully provide enough information about the process so that people can see there was some process – what was done, what wasn’t done – and then decisions can be made … with folks giving input about what might need to be tweaked in the process, or more than tweaked, to ensure the disciplinary process is working toward its goals.”
Kostel, with Burtch’s help, proceeded line-by-line through a detailed written timeline that was prepared for the church’s Standing Commission on Structure, Governance, Constitution and Canons, which is considering possible changes to the Title IV canons in response to calls for by Curry and Ayala Harris for a new review to ensure equal accountability for bishops and other clergy.
The timeline lays out how an entity known as the Reference Panel led much of the process of resolving Ayala Harris’ complaint. Typically, the presiding bishop serves as one of three members on the Reference Panel, but Curry recused himself and designated retired Texas Suffragan Bishop Dena Harrison to take his place. Ousley also served on the panel, along with the Rt. Rev. Chilton Knudsen, as president of the Disciplinary Board for Bishops.
Twice in the past year, Harrison, on behalf of the Reference Panel and after consulting with Ayala Harris, successfully negotiated an accord with Konieczny only to have the proposed accord rejected by the full Disciplinary Board for Bishops, according to the timeline. No reason was given, and Kostel and Burtch declined to elaborate on the matter when asked by members of the House of Bishops.
The timeline also shed more light on the involvement of another church attorney, Brad Davenport of the Diocese of Virginia, who was assigned to the case by the Disciplinary Board for Bishops. After the negotiated accords were rejected and the Reference Panel referred the matter to a Hearing Panel to consider possible discipline for Konieczny, Davenport exercised his authority under the Title IV canons to recommend a “pastoral response in lieu of disciplinary action” on July 25. Harrison accepted that recommendation and issued the pastoral response on July 31, effectively closing the case.
Alongside the Reference Panel, the canons give significant authority to the designated church attorney in a Title IV case, including “to exercise discretion consistent with this Title and the interests of the Church by declining to advance proceedings” or to send the matter “for pastoral response in lieu of disciplinary action.”
Kostel, in responding to questions from bishops, described the church attorney’s authority under Title IV as roughly equivalent to that of a criminal prosecutor, who has discretion in the civil judicial system to forward or drop charges. The standing commission that is reviewing the Title IV canons already had identified this as a matter meriting greater scrutiny, even before Ayala Harris made her case public, Kostel said.
Ousley, though referring most questions to Kostel and Burtch, responded directly to a question about the frequency of complaints against bishops. Although he no longer serves as intake officer, he estimated he previously fielded about 40-50 complaints a year, with individual bishops sometimes being the focus of multiple complaints. During his time, he said, after initial review about 95% of those complaints did not rise to the level of Title IV matters. That might mean that the complainant was not alleging any canonical violation, or the matter amounted to something like a communication breakdown between the complainant and bishop that could be resolved with a pastoral conversation.
“It does not mean that it isn’t an issue that needs to be addressed,” Ousley said. “It means Title IV is not the appropriate venue for that.”
– David Paulsen is a senior reporter and editor for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at email@example.com.