From time to time your editor is offered pieces to be placed on this blog. Eric has written on the topic of his experience of shunning before. His present piece illustrates various aspects of dysfunctional power dynamics in the church. When problems escalate it can be seen that the competence to resolve them is not easily found in church circles. Although this is not in any way about sexual abuse, the same difficulty as for UK church authorities to have in place robust procedures to sort out problems is becoming increasingly apparent. A gloomy thought suggests that this sort of failure by the church to sort out its power issues may in the future overwhelm it financially and in other ways.
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Readers of this blog may recall that, some time ago, I authored a post about shunning. It was based on my first-hand experiences at Grace Episcopal Church, which is located just outside the US capitol in a suburb of Virginia. In that article, I attempted to focus on the larger issue of shunning, rather than the specifics of my situation, as I wanted to avoid making the article too personal. However, some recent, very troubling developments have occurred, and I wanted to share those with you.
By way of background, in spring 2017, my diocese finally agreed to get involved, bringing an end to more than 15 months of shunning, which had started at the direction of the rector, the Rev. Robert H. Malm. The genesis of his campaign was a complaint I had filed with the diocese over what I perceived to be bullying behavior by the rector, as well as gross mismanagement of parish business affairs. Unfortunately, the diocese declined to get involved, and ignored my objections to the rector’s retaliatory conduct.
As part of the deal that was struck that spring via the good graces of the diocese, the Rev. Malm agreed to stop shunning and bullying within the parish. I also agreed to take down my “name-and-shame” blog, which I had developed after the diocese declined to intervene. At the same time, all involved agreed that only the persons in the room were covered by the agreement, that other family members already were blogging about their experiences, and that they both could and likely would continue to do so, despite our efforts at a ceasefire.
By September 2017, I had become aware that family members remained embroiled in the conflict, and contacted both the diocese and the rector with the suggestion that we publicly make peace, so that all involved would see that there were no longer sides to take in the matter. While diocesan officials were encouraging, the rector seemingly brushed off my suggestion, and I heard nothing more about it.
In November, the bishop tried to get in touch with me, seeking my assistance in muting the continuing controversy. Tired of this conflict, facing inordinate pressures at work, and dealing with two family members at end of life, I had to respectfully decline, but offered a series of written observations and suggestions that I hoped would be helpful, possibly even tamping down the conflict.
That seemed to be the last of it, when a few days before Christmas, I got a call on a non-public number at work from a local police officer, claiming that the rector feared for his safety, as did many parishioners. Questioned about the matter, he falsely suggested that there were terroristic threats on family members’s blogs, and he attempted to cajole and wheedle me into getting involved, which I declined to do. He also stated that, until the matter is resolved, I would immediately be arrested if I set foot on church property. That is troubling, as it expressly violates one key component of the deal arranged with the diocese, which is that I would be welcome in the unlikely event that I wanted to visit Grace Church. Even more troubling, the police officer in question left his jurisdiction, entered onto private property marked with no trespassing signs, and entered a locked condo building to leave a note on my door. Thus, between that and the phone call at work, the seeming message is, “We know where you are, and we’re watching you.”
Of course, there is a larger issue, and that is the potential misuse of the rector’s role in the community and the inherent imbalance of power. Indeed, claims that parishioners fear for their safety seem improbable, as the rector himself said in an email to me from September 2017 that he had not heard anything about our conflict in several months. Yet, by December people are in fear for their safety? If so, what changed? Did the police attempt to verify for themselves the rector’s claims?
Subsequently, I have filed an internal affairs complaint with the relevant police department, and notified the diocese of my experience. More than two weeks later, however, I have seen no sign that the diocese of Virginia is going to address this issue in any meaningful way, nor have I received any sort of response. This sort of passive-aggressive behavior is very troubling to those who face possible clergy misconduct, for it does nothing to reassure us that we will be heard, believed, cared for, and treated with respect and compassion.
On a larger scale, blogs such as this (or even the caustic but still appropriate blog operated by my family members) will struggle to fulfill their important role as guardians of the greater good if writing about potentially abusive behavior results in police investigations and threats. It is my hope that both church and law enforcement officials will be sensitive to the imbalance of power when conflicts such as this arise between clergy and laity, and not automatically assume that information provided by clergy is accurate. Further, if potential abuse is to be addressed in a meaningful manner, there must be prompt assurances when a complaint is filed that the matter will be taken seriously, addressed as promptly as possible, and with care and respect for all concerned, including the clergy.
Truly, the church has a long way to go before it fully understands and addresses the issues that arise due to misuse of power in the church, and in the larger community.
Author’s note: The views expressed in this article are mine, and mine alone. It should also be noted that no court of competent jurisdiction has issued a ruling that states that abuse has occurred,