Last week I read a Facebook post about a bishop’s resignation, calling the event “another in a long line of bishops behaving badly.” The thread of comments pursued a theme of multiple bishops beset by lechery and larceny. I reacted, perhaps overreacted, because it was an attack on a dear friend at a vulnerable time. But I did not address the basic theme that the church is suffering from “a long line of bishops behaving badly.” Here, I hope to assess that premise, not reactively as I did on FB, but sticking to the facts.
I say this first so you know my perspective. As a lay person and a priest, I never had the experience of a bishop engaged in misconduct. As a bishop, I have had two experiences leading in opposite directions. On the one hand, I have heard stories of bishop misconduct in the 80s and 90s that were a real eye-opener to the dark side of the church. On the other hand, I have never in my life worked with a more sincere, good-hearted, and supportive family of colleagues than the House of Bishops. It was that way when I arrived and has just gotten better as the years go by. I suspect the change may result from better search and screening processes in this century, the work of the College for Bishops, and a generally healthier Church producing generally healthier bishops.
I have been in the House of Bishops for 9 years now. Here’s what I know: I am aware of one case of bishop misconduct of the financial variety that happened in this century but before I was elected. It happened in Ecuador. A new bishop was chosen, but later driven out. It was not because of any misconduct on his part. Really, quite the opposite. Some of the clergy who were used to the old ways, found him too rigorous and upright.
In my near-decade among the Bishops there have been four cases, to my knowledge and recollection, actually prosecuted. There are many investigations. It is not because bishops are inherently corrupt but because we have to make hard decisions, and hard decisions make enemies. Enemies tend to make Title IV accusations to get even or to get their way. When bishops are being oriented, they tell us to brace ourselves for the Title IV complaint. It’s part of the job. I haven’t had one yet, and I attribute that to praying ardently each day for the peace and happiness of my enemies. We all feel the bull’s eye on our backs.
But as I say there have been only 4 cases that I recall in this near-decade, as opposed to hundreds of cases involving priests. We cannot say about the laity because the proposal to apply standards of conduct to the laity was soundly voted down (and a good thing too). So, let’s look at these 4 cases that constitute the “long line of bishops behaving badly” in the fields of lechery and larceny:
One bishop was prosecuted but ultimately not disciplined on a charge. The charge was not any sexual misconduct of his own. 20 year earlier, when he was the rector of a congregation, his brother was a youth leader on staff, and was accused of inappropriate relations with a teenager. The youth director denied it. The rector fired his brother but did not take the case to the police. His restraint was at the request of the teenager’s family. Decades later, when he was a bishop, the charges were brought against him. The other bishops pressured him to resign but he was not formally disciplined.
A bishop was charged and renounced her orders after a DUI-related fatal car accident. I do not mean to mitigate the seriousness of that at all. But it does not fit the mold of lechery and larceny.
A priest had an extra-marital affair. Over a decade later, after he had become a bishop, the old affair came to light. He was suspended and subsequently resigned from his position.
There is currently a high-profile case about the Bishop of Los Angeles. I do not intend to argue the merits of that case here and I hope commentators will keep the case in the ecclesiastical court and not on my page. But the basic facts are: he closed and sold a church to recoup expenses incurred in litigation to save multiple other churches that ACNA secessionists were trying to take away from the diocese. No lechery or larceny involved.
As far as I know, that is it. That is the “long line of bishops behaving badly.” So, here’s my question: Why do we think the episcopacy is scandal-ridden? Does the cloud of old misconduct from the 80s and 90s hang over us? Or do we actually want to imagine that our bishops are corrupt? Do we have an inner Presbyterian? It makes me wonder about depth psychology dynamics like projection and transference. And does this have anything in common with the widespread assumption this year that democracy is a scam, elections are fixed, and scientists are telling us carbon emissions contribute to global warming because such a hoax will somehow enable them to take our money? What are tabloids, expose documentaries, and pseudo-Reality TV doing to the way we look at each other, especially our spiritual leaders?