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A Troubled Church: Episcopal Leadership Buffeted by Scandals

September 2, 1995

When Episcopal Bishop Charles Jones admitted having an adulterous relationship with a parishioner, he took a short leave of absence and went right back to leading his Montana diocese.

When Bishop Steven Plummer admitted sexually abusing a teen-age boy, he continued to lead the Navajoland Area Mission for another two years.

When Bishop David Johnson of Massachusetts committed suicide, several women came forward to allege that the leader who had portrayed himself as a champion of sexual abuse victims was one of the church’s worst violators.

That would be enough high-level scandal for any church.

But faith in the leadership of one of the nation’s most influential Protestant churches was further shaken this year with the announcement that a former treasurer had looted millions of dollars from church tills to finance a luxury lifestyle.

The Episcopal Church, the spiritual home of 12 of the nation’s presidents, now finds itself trying to establish trust in an era when the national offices of all the once-powerful mainline Protestant denominations are cutting budgets and staffs.

Nearly every denomination is struggling with issues of money, sex and power _ but not nearly as dramatically. Consider this year alone:

_After Johnson’s death in mid-January, several women came forward to tell stories of adulterous relations that the church said in some cases ``appear to have been of the character of sexual exploitation.″

_Also in January, 10 bishops filed charges accusing retired Bishop Walter Righter of violating his ordination vows by ordaining an openly gay man in 1990 while serving as assistant bishop in the diocese of Newark, N.J. The church’s bishops this summer voted to proceed with a formal trial.

_In May, Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning said former Treasurer Ellen Cooke had embezzled more than $2 million, much of it spent on such things as lavish residences, Tiffany necklaces and limousines. She has agreed to make restitution, and has not been charged in connection with the theft.

_In July, a church committee voted to recommend to the House of Bishops and Executive Council that women be ordained and permitted to serve in all dioceses, which would effectively end a compromise of nearly two decades allowing bishops who did not believe in women priests to refuse to ordain them as a matter of conscience.

``Since the first of January, it’s really been a very traumatic time for the Episcopal Church,″ said Pamela Chinnis, president of the church’s House of Deputies.

The controversy comes as the national church has been engaged in a protracted battle against a sea of red ink.

The Episcopal Church has recorded slight membership gains in the past four years to push membership over 2.5 million, but that follow years of substantial decline; in the 1960s, membership was at a high of 3.6 million.

And while giving to local churches is up, the trend is downward for the national church. The church has cut back a third of its national staff since 1991 as dioceses keep more of their money at home.

Bishop Donald Wimberly of Lexington, Ky., chairman of the Administration and Finance Committee of the church’s Executive Council, said officials don’t know what effect recent events will have on finances.

In the pews, many simply view the scandals as the problem of an increasingly distant national church.

``When you get beyond the Mississippi River, they say, `Ellen who?′ ″ Chinnis said.

At Christ Church in Greenwich, Conn., where stately stone buildings and archways provide a sense of tranquility and timeless grandeur, worshipers said the scandals were embarrassing but have not caused anyone to leave.

``Disappointed is what I feel. But that doesn’t change my loyalty,″ said Barbara Reed, a member of Christ Church since 1964.

Down at St. Paul and St. James Church in New Haven, an inner-city church where open shirts replaced coats and ties on a recent summer Sunday, the reaction was much the same.

``We have our own trenches we’re fighting in,″ said church member Robert Yates. Added Gretchen Pritchard: ``The national questions bore us silly.″

If some people question why the presiding bishop did not act sooner to fire Mrs. Cooke, long criticized for a domineering management style, and why no checks and balances were in place to prevent the embezzlement, many explain it away as the presence of a single ingenious thief.

Wimberly said the church could have more closely supervised its financial affairs, but is now doing its best to deal with the aftermath.

``I really feel good about the Episcopal Church,″ he said. ``My feeling is that the presiding bishop has done a good job about coming clean about this.″

The sexual abuse scandals, however, cannot be typed as isolated incidents by the victims and their advocates within the church.

``I haven’t heard a story yet of anyone who feels their case has been handled appropriately and hasn’t been retraumatized by it,″ said Margaret Burroughs, a Massachusetts woman who was sexually abused by a priest and edited a newsletter for Episcopal abuse victims.

Burroughs, who served on an advocacy committee for victims headed by Johnson, said hindsight reveals an all-too-familiar pattern of the bishop treating the problem lightly.

While diocesan procedures called for victims to be referred to advocates, for example, the policy was not followed, she said. Instead, she said, the bishop would describe each new allegation as ``a special case″ and would handle it himself.

In her own case, the day she was due to confront the priest who abused her, she heard Johnson and the offender having a ``real yuk-it-up. It sounded like the good old boys having a great time.″

``How he could counsel me and empathize with me and know he himself was an abuser still has me reeling,″ she said.

In the case of Plummer, Episcopal leaders knew the bishop had sexually abused a minor long before they informed the church or sought to remove him from ministry.

In 1991, a deacon informed national church officials Plummer had told him he had sex with a male minor over a two-year period ending in 1989. Plummer subsequently admitted the sexual abuse to Browning, who required him to undergo a five-day psychiatric evaluation.

After that evaluation, church officials said they concluded Plummer was not in danger of being a repeat offender. Plummer later began twice-monthly visits to a psychiatrist and the matter was kept secret until two years later, when the deacon made it public.

Only then did Browning take action, placing Plummer on medical leave and announcing that the bishop had agreed to a one-year leave of absence. The House of Bishops allowed him to be reinstated on Browning’s recommendation in June 1994.

Experts in the field say the handling of the case was unusual in several respects.

A consensus has emerged, they say, that individuals should be immediately removed from ministry in cases involving the strong suspicion of sexual abuse of a minor. If the abuse becomes known, the question then becomes whether, after months or years of intensive therapy, the individual can be returned to some form of supervised ministry.

``I think it would be the consensus that any person in ministerial leadership who has sexually abused a child or teen-ager should be (removed) regardless of whatever admission they make or treatment they may receive,″ said the Rev. Marie Fortune, executive director of The Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence in Seattle.


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