Bishop Michael Curry responds to complaints of 'free passes' for accused bishops

Bishop Michael CurryYouTube / Thy Kingdom Come

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, head of the Episcopal Church, announced recommendations for revising disciplinary procedures for bishops in a video posted Tuesday evening.

"For the sake of the gospel, for the sake of our integrity, and, above all, for the sake of the well-being of every child of God who is a part of this church, we cannot, we must not, and we will not sit idly by when anyone is hurt or harmed in our midst," said Curry.

He asked the Standing Commission on Structure, Governance, Constitution and Canons, a representative body of 10 laity, five clergy and five bishops, to review how the church has disciplined bishops and recommend changes to that process to the General Convention, the denomination's governing body.

Curry, who was recently hospitalized for a recurrence of internal bleeding and is scheduled for a related surgery later this month, was responding in his address to an Aug. 31 letter signed by at least 55 Episcopal bishops who are "angered by and deeply concerned about the perception — or the reality — that bishops get a free pass on behavioral issues," as well as a separate open letter signed by over 240 individuals that called on Curry to deliver a "powerful word" in response to the church's moment of "reckoning."

Last Wednesday, Julia Ayala Harris, president of the House of Deputies and the second-ranking officer of the church, wrote a letter stating concerns about the church's response to her allegations that a retired bishop subjected her to "non-consensual physical contact" as well as "inappropriate verbal statements" on July 9, 2022, the day she was elected president.

Ayala Harris wrote that she filed a complaint that led to a Title IV process, the internal disciplinary procedure for Episcopal clergy accused of misconduct. Though investigations found that the retired bishop likely violated church canons and New York sexual harassment laws, Ayala Harris said, he was referred for a pastoral response rather than discipline.

"I find this outcome deeply unsettling and feel the referral to be an obvious abuse of discretion by the church attorney," Ayala Harris wrote in her letter. She noted that at the 2024 General Convention, scheduled for June 23-28 in Louisville, Kentucky, she will invite deputies — clergy and lay representatives — to sign a covenant that "will make clear that any form of harassment, intimidation, or other improper conduct will have no place in the House of Deputies."

When a handful of bishops in the Episcopal Church's Province VIII, or the Province of the Pacific, learned of Ayala Harris' letter, they decided to draft their own letter requesting the House of Bishops review the disciplinary process at the House of Bishops Meeting scheduled for later this month.

"As women, we have all experienced inappropriate behavior on the part of others, and as bishops, we're responsible for helping with church discipline. We're also responsible for, how do we do the work of justice? The work of reconciliation?" Gretchen Rehberg, bishop of the Diocese of Spokane, Washington, and one of the organizers behind the letter, told Religion News Service.

"We are aware of several recent high profile cases in which bishops were accused of improper behavior, and many in the church believe those bishops received few or no consequences," the letter says. "Bishops cannot be allowed to have a 'free pass.'"

The letter, which also acknowledges the church's recent hiring of an independent intake officer for misconduct complaints against bishops as a "good first step," was sent with 29 signatures to Curry, who in turn sent the letter to the House of Bishops on Friday. Rehberg said that while the letter was not designed as a petition, the organizers have received over two dozen additional requests from bishops asking to add their signatures since the letter was sent.

"What it shows is, there's a real groundswell of support," said Rehberg. "This is a really serious issue, and we really need to spend time talking about it."

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