The time has come for transparency in the handling of abuse cases

On June 24, Bishop Paul Marshall of Bethlehem left a comment on at item on The Lead that concerned the case of the Rev. Bede Parry, an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Nevada who had sexually abused young men in his charge while a Catholic monk.

Parry was received into the Episcopal priesthood while Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori was the Bishop of Nevada. Marshall was responding to comments by other visitors to the Café who wished that the Presiding Bishop and the Episcopal Church were handling the release of information regarding this incident in a more transparent fashion.

Referring to Episcopal Church Center by its street address (815) and the Roman Catholic Church by initials, he wrote:

Now let’s be serious. When 815-level lawyers threaten and cajole diocesan bishops not to reveal multiple sex-abuse cover-ups at the highest level lest former leaders be embarrassed, what can we expect, and why do we look down on the RCC? Serious and credentialled investigative reporters can contact me.

As a rector I had to follow a priest who was simply passed along by another bishop, and as a bishop have had the same experience with a staff member who was protected by his bishop, with catastrophic results here.

On paper, we are a one-strike church, but in reality, too may people are walked. 815 refused comment on this story with principled-sounding obfuscation, which essentially tells it all, doesn’t it? There is no more transparency at 815 than previously, as some of the commentators above know to their pain.

His comment was picked up by several influential bloggers. Religion News Service has filed a story on the Parry case, and a Reuters reporter has written a story for that news service’s blog.

Since the bishop wrote his comment, the Rt. Rev. Dan Edwards, the current Bishop of Nevada, has spoken about Parry’s case. He has defended the Presiding Bishop’s decision to receive Parry into the church as a priest. He has also disputed the assertion, made by lawyers of a man who is suing the Roman Catholic abbey where Parry was a monk, that the diocese had access in 2000 to psychological testing suggesting Parry had a proclivity to sexually abuse minors.

The public affairs office at Church Center has issued a fact sheet congruent with Edwards’ statements. The Presiding Bishop has yet to speak about the case.

It may take some time before all the facts regarding Bede Parry’s reception into the Episcopal Church are clear. It seems prudent to continue asking questions (such as why the Presiding Bishop decided to receive Parry into the church as a priest, but to instruct his superiors that he was not to work with children) because clarity on this issue is important, but to avoid drawing conclusions until more information is in hand.

Bishop Marshall’s concern remains, however.

In responding to issues raised by the Parry case, the Presiding Bishop seems to have chosen a course that will erode her ability to lead and to inspire, and significantly diminish her ability to speak with the press. It is possible to ride out certain controversies by refusing to comment on them, but only if one can avoid the media more or less entirely. The Presiding Bishop, however, encounters the media regularly as part of her job—and almost always to excellent effect. Mainstream media in the dioceses she visits may well ask about her decision to receive Bede Parry into the church. She will almost certainly face questions about the Parry situation by church media covering the next meeting of Executive Council. The longer she refuses to speak on this issue, the more it will appear that she is hiding something—even if she is not. This isn’t good for her, and it isn’t good for the church.

The Presiding Bishop, being a smart woman with sharp communications advisors, is probably aware of these facts, so one assumes that either other facts—currently unknown to the public—or a different kind of advice dictates this course of action. It is the second of these possibilities that lies at the heart of Bishop Marshall’s concern.

He alleges that “815-level lawyers” are exerting pressure on individuals within the church, including, presumably, bishops to remain silent about “multiple sex-abuse cover-ups at the highest level.” The bishop provides no details—which leaves the “815-level lawyers” hanging—though he does offer to speak to serious reporters.

At this point, Marshall’s allegations await confirmation. However, victims’ advocates have expressed concern for many years about the handling of abuse cases within the church, particularly at Church Center. Due to the sensitive and usually confidential nature of these situations, few details are available, and victims’ advocates have told me that their pleas for greater institutional transparency have gone unheeded.

The current strategy of keeping the Presiding Bishop silent in an instance in which there are no allegations against her or the Episcopal Church does little to allay concerns that previous wrongdoing in which the church was directly implicated have been concealed from public view.

Perhaps it is time for a thoroughgoing review of how the Church Center has handled sexual abuses cases brought to its attention through the years—preferably by an independent auditor. As a moral matter, if the church has done wrong by victims of sexual abuse, we need to repent and make amends. And as a practical matter, it will go better for us if we confess our own sins than if we have the investigative reporters who take Bishop Marshall up on his offer confess them for us.

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