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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Keeping Close Watch

There are those of us who are keeping close watch on the unfolding implementation of the newly revised canons in The Episcopal Church, known as "Title IV" or collectively, in shorthand, "the disciplinary canons."

The Title IV canons are, in the main, an important part of the church holding itself and its ordained leaders accountable for clergy misconduct. This is a good thing. Indeed, it is a good thing perhaps tarnished initially by being too long in the waiting and too aggressively implemented at the start.

Serious concerns are being voiced by clergy and laity, bishops and chancellors, about how these canons are being implemented in some situations. In this litigious cultural climate, accusations or allegations of misconduct have had the chilling effect of rendering the priest "guilty until proven innocent" - the exact opposite of the intended effect of the design of these canons.

Anxiety is heightened in those dioceses where doctrinal or political differences between bishop and clergy or clergy and laity are more sharply defined and controversial. Conservative and Progressive clergy alike fear that Title IV canons can become an easy way for the bishop to "get rid of this troublesome cleric."

Some feel that the canons are out of balance, suggesting that it is much more difficult to hold bishops accountable according to canon. Women, especially those who have a more creative approach to ministry, often feel especially vulnerable. The leadership of the laity is presently not fully addressed by these canons - which lead many (including the laity themselves) to ask, "Why not?"

Anxiety is so high in many clerical circles that some are asking, with sarcastic humor intended to reduce the anxiety, whether or not Carl Rove is on retainer as an advisor to The Episcopal Church as a way to control behavior. As one clergy person was overheard to remark, "Say 'terrorist' and surrender your constitutional rights. Say 'Title IV' and surrender your ecclesiastical rights."

The real tragedy, in my personal estimation, is the damage done to the pastoral relationship between the bishop and the priest. In certain circumstances, this has also done incalculable damage to the relationship between the priest and the congregation as well as the relationship between the bishop and the congregation.

I do believe that the institutional church is sincerely trying to work this out to the best case scenario for everyone involved - the plaintiff as well as the defendant - to the glory of God and following the prophetic mandate to "do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God."

I also believe that Title IV Canons can be an important way to proceed when allegations of misconduct have been made which provides an avenue of justice as well as hope and healing for all. Indeed, not only are there are provisions for a pastoral response team for the congregation and a pastoral support person for the clergy (the bishop is necessarily mandated to relinquish the role as 'chief pastor' as soon as an allegation is made), but every effort is made to work toward a solution to the problem before an Ecclesiastical court trial is necessary.

What follows is a report on the first day of trial in the latest case which is drawing enormous attention around the church. This is primarily so because both priest and bishop have the respect and admiration of many - often the same people. For a church built on the relationships we have with each other in the community of those baptized into the Body of Christ, this is a thing almost too heartbreaking for some to watch.

You can find a summary of the story in an article as reported in The Living Church here.

Most of us sit on the sidelines, holding our breath, saying our prayers, watching and waiting.

Prosecution Rests Case Against Central New York Priest

An ecclesiastical court ruled July 16 in Syracuse, N.Y., that the Rt. Rev. Gladstone “Skip” Adams, Bishop of Central New York, would not be permitted to testify in the trial of the Rev. David Bollinger, former rector of St. Paul’s, Owego, who stands accused of financial misconduct and disobedience.

Before the trial began, Carter Strickland, the presiding judge, excluded most of the evidence and all of the witnesses for the prosecution because it missed the discovery phase filing deadline by more than two weeks. Bishop Adams was not on a witness list submitted to the court at least 60 days before the start of the trial.

In all, the court rejected nine motions by James Sparks, the church attorney for the diocese. After the ninth motion, the diocese rested its case. The only evidence it was allowed to submit were the allegations made in the presentment charges.

Court was in session for six hours however, there were numerous breaks during which the ecclesiastical judges conferred. The trial resumes Tuesday with the defense calling witnesses and offering evidence.

In previous interviews with The Living Church, Fr. Bollinger has maintained that the financial misconduct charges against him were part of an attempt to silence him after he repeatedly tried to have the diocese investigate the alleged sexual misconduct of a former rector of St. Paul’s. In April 2006 the priest voluntarily renounced his vows.


Muthah+ said...

Just home from that trial. What was evident was the either the trial lawyers were incompetent or the diocese was refusing to provide the materials in the discovery stage. The court made it very clear that they felt that the diocese had tried to circumvent the agreed upon proceedures that were set up by the court.

At one point I am told, the Bishop tried to have the trial moved to another diocese and the Standing Committee voted unanimously to not allow that to happen. This case has gone on for 3 years at tremendous cost to Fr. Bollinger. I am thankful for him that it is over.

It is just beginning for Bp. Adams, however.

top2 said...

I for one am very gratified that Fr. Bollinger has been cleared. This case had far too much of the whiff of abuse of power about it to suit my simple tastes. Granted we should always be more than ready to believe only the best of *all* our clergy, the sad fact is that in far too many instances there's far too much prima facie evidence that what we might like to think would be gold is in fact only "poor iron."

If the diocese (in the person of +Adams & its lawyers) is so unwilling to present its alleged "documentation" against Fr. Bollinger, much as we may want to believe the best of them it's hard to do so. :(


Ann said...

Title IV canons were not revised at the last GC - they need revision but it did not happen as Deputies sent it back to the Task Force.