Malicious prosecution warnings for Episcopal clergy

 

Malicious prosecution warnings for Episcopal clergy

Author: 

George Conger

A bulk email offering assistance akin to a pre-paid legal services plan has refocused the Episcopal Church’s attention on flaws within the new Title IV Ecclesiastical Discipline canons.
A 17 January 2013 email from CanonLawyer, Inc., an organization set up by long-time General Convention deputy and the former chancellor of the Diocese of Newark, Michael Rehill, elicited a wave of chatter amongst the clergy of the Episcopal Church after it warned of the risks of malicious prosecution under the new code.
In the personally addressed email, Mr. Rehill states: “I am writing to you because you are a Member of the Clergy of the Episcopal Church, and you are at risk of facing a proceeding under Title IV of the Canons of The Episcopal Church.”
He states that “as a result of recent revisions to Title IV, many more Members of the Clergy are now facing ecclesiastical discipline,” adding: “You need to be prepared before it happens to you.”
Mr. Rehill summarizes the changes that have taken place, stating the new disciplinary code that came into effect on 1 July 2011 now includes:
“Several new offenses for which a Member of the Clergy may be subject to discipline which had never previously been included in the Canons of the Episcopal Church. In addition to the Offenses under the old Title IV, a Member of the Clergy may now face disciplinary proceedings for (a) "attempting to violate, directly or through the acts of another person, the Constitution or Canons of the Church or of any Diocese;" (b) failing to "cooperate" with any Title IV investigation or proceeding; (c) bringing a false accusation or providing false testimony or false evidence in any Title IV investigation or proceeding: and (d) failing to report all matters "which may constitute an Offense" under Canons IV. 3 or IV.4.”
The new code significantly diminishes the liberties and rights of the clergy, he observed. It “now has entirely new disciplinary structures and multiple phases, and it contains provisions which give broad new powers to Bishops, disgruntled parishioners and former parishioners, and others who can now anonymously file unsubstantiated charges; and the rights of Episcopal Clergy have been substantially reduced.”
Bishops now have the right, he said, to suspend clergy from office and place them on “Administrative Leave” without “prior notice or hearing”.
“Attempts were made to restore the rights of the clergy” at the Indianapolis General Convention in 2012 -- over 80 changes were proposed – but were not adopted and the matter passed to the Constitution and Canons committee for review, he observed. “That means that for at least the next three years, Members of the Clergy in the Episcopal Church will remain vulnerable to false and malicious Title IV charges.”
Mr. Rehill’s firm, CanonLawyer, Inc., has offered membership in legal services plan that in return for an annual fee of $1200, would provide legal and canon law consultants and advisers to assist with actions under Title IV. “The CanonLawyer Clergy Assistance Plan operates much like a prepaid legal services plan, to guarantee you proper representation at a reasonable and affordable cost,” he said.
Responses to the email amongst clergy circles were varied. Some expressed concern over how their email address had been acquired by CanonLawyer, while others sought to assure their colleagues that there was no need for alarm.
One senior priest in Central Florida told his colleagues: “It is extremely unlikely for a priest to face ecclesiastical discipline.  If you experience discipline as a consequence of an extra-marital affair or an addiction, you will probably lose your job as a consequence. The Bishop will help you get counseling and work to restore you, but 'aint no canon lawyer gonna help you.  If it is stealing money or sex with minors that gets you into trouble, you'll need a criminal attorney, not a canon lawyer.”
Subscribing to the Clergy Assistance Plan “only makes sense if you are pretty sure that you're going to become a rebel in the next few years,” he said, but added: “On the other hand, considering that a bishop who simply writes afriend of the court brief can be disciplined, I actually think it may make sense” for a diocese to purchase this plan for its bishop.
At the 5-12 July 2012 General Convention in Indianapolis resolutions calling for a review of the Title IV canons were adopted.  Resolution C049, proposed by the Diocese of Albany, directed the Standing Commission on Constitution and Canons to determine “the extent to which the elements of safety, truth-telling, healing, and reconciliation are being effected” as first intended by 2006 General Convention Resolution A153 which provided the mandate for the revision of Title IV.
The Convention also adopted a resolution put forward by the Diocese of Central Florida. Resolution C116 asked the commission to review the constitutionality of sections of Title IV. The Central Florida resolution was prompted by a 2011 paper from the Anglican Communion Institute, which called  the new Title IV “a bad canon being implemented badly.”  The ACI documented the constitutional and legal flaws in the new code and urged its repeal.
The ACI paper prompted in turn a response by some of the authors of the new code, who published a paper in defense of the its “constitutionality”.
As a deputy to the 2006 convention, Mr. Rehill helped lead the legislative fight against adoption of the changes. However, he did not attend the 2009 convention in Anaheim where the deputies accepted the reforms based upon assurances it was “pastoral" and "healing" rather than "legal", and “that it would reduce the number Title IV cases”. 
As a result “they voted away virtually all of the canonical rights of Clergy in Title IV matters,” and “unfortunately, the representations of the proponents proved to be wrong, and the results have been devastating for many clergy.”
As an alternate deputy to the 2012 convention in Indianapolis, Mr. Rehill testified in committee hearings seeking to “restore many of those fundamental Clergy rights, and to restore justice as the primary focus of the process,” he said, but noted these “efforts were not successful, in part because of the bureaucratic structure of General Convention and in part because the authors/proponents of the current Title IV were in control of the legislative process.”
Upon returning home from Indianapolis, Mr. Rehill and his colleagues believed they had a duty to educate the clergy on the current state of canon law and “began the rather formidable task of seeking email addresses for as many Members of the Clergy as possible.  Unfortunately, there is no central email data base of Episcopal Clergy available to anyone other than the leaders of TEC.”
As the email database was built, inquiries began to arrive from clergy who had found the group’s website on the internet.  “I have been representing Episcopal Clergy, Bishops, Priests and Deacons, for more than 30 years, and I have represented more than 50 Members of the Clergy in 25 Dioceses in 7 different Provinces.  Prior to the new Title IV, I would typically have one or two new matters each year.  Since the new Title IV took effect in July of 2011, that number has swelled dramatically.  We now have more Title IV matters than we have had in the prior 10 years.”
In an interview before the 2012 convention with the church’s press office, the Episcopal News Service, the past chairman of the Constitution and Canons commission, Diane Sammons – the current chancellor of the Diocese of Newark -- said that while the new code was not ideal, it sought to instill a “sense of pastoral care and theology” into the disciplinary process.
She told ENS that, despite objections about a loss of due process, clergy will benefit from the new procedures. The elimination of clergy “rights” needed to be balanced with the needs of the “victims”.
“You do not want to discourage people who are really victims from having a prompt and just resolution of their problem,” she said. “But it’s really designed to see if there’s a way to work it out first through communication without a punitive process, and that’s the benefit to the clergy.”
The Clergy Assistance Plan did not offer legal representation, Mr. Rehill told Anglican Ink. “Its services are ecclesiastical in nature, and our advice/representation is limited to matters of Canon Law.”
“We wrote to as many Priests in the Church as we could, because the issues posed by the current Title IV are so serious, and it is my belief that every Priest is at risk,” he explained. The responses have “run the range from appreciation for our efforts to personal attacks.   Some appear to be angry that we have made this public.  Some still do not understand or believe the seriousness of the present Canons for the Clergy.   Most appear to be very positive," he said.
The new canons were problematic he explained. “Every disgruntled worshipper now has the means of inflicting potentially career-ending damage to a Priest.  It is now open season for the so-called ‘clergy killers’."   
He added the level of knowledge about the consequences of the new rules was low. “Many Bishops and Chancellors similarly do not seem to fully comprehend the disciplinary canons, and we encounter non-canonical responses and actions by Bishops on a regular basis, in large measure because the procedures under the new Title IV are complex,” he said.
“We have brought Title IV into the consciousness of many of our Clergy, and, hopefully, they will be prepared if they are made the subject of a Title IV complaint or proceeding,” Mr. Rehill said.