Another inhibition was handed down this week in our diocese. The priest concerned is a well-respected retired person. No reason for the inhibition was given. Of course, these days the first thought is sexual misconduct, but that is not necessarily so. And I would hope that thinking Episcopalians would avoid such speculation
I emailed the priest and assured him of my prayers. No inhibition absolves me from praying for a colleague, innocent or guilty, in such a situation. I do not believe in shunning. As a part of inhibitions, there is often a requirement that the priest may not speak of the charges against him/her or have contact with fellow clergy. I believe that is a real miscarriage of justice. If the bishop has the obligation according to canon to prevent a priest from carrying out his/her ministry while an investigation is going on, then the charge or the subject of the investigation should be made public. A cleric still needs his/her Church at such a time.
The secrecy of such inhibitions is what separates the church system of justice from the American form of justice. In the secular courts there are important procedures to make sure that one is to be considered innocent until proven guilty. Everyone has access to the same process. The church system of justice does not have such provisions. When secrecy is an element of the proceedings, all do not have access to the truth of a given case. All too often I am seeing people accused, inhibitions pronounced and then nothing done for inordinate amounts of time. Such delays can cause irreparable damage to an innocent priest’s reputation and career. In the ‘60’s we used to say that “justice delayed is justice denied.” And it is true even today. Long drawn out procedures to decide whether or not charges should be made leave the priest unable to clear his/her name.
Also, there is no statute of limitations on any of the canons. Times change and what was acceptable 30 years ago may today be a prosecutable offence. A good example of this: When I began my ministry, many of the priests who were the leaders of major parishes had met their wives in their first parish. In fact, it was considered the parish’s responsibility to find “a nice young woman” to marry to the new curate who came to the parish from seminary. It was one of the ways that the community “took care” of their clergy. Today, if a priest enters into a relationship with a member of the parish, it is considered a boundary violation.
Yes, there are those priests who do abuse their relationship with their congregations and violate all kinds of boundaries. But after knowing some of those who have done so, I have found that they are often people who were basically good people who had lost their way at a point in their ministry. The incident of clergy depression, isolation and fear is endemic as noted by church insurance companies in most denominations. They generally not hardened criminals or blind to their failings.
This does not absolve priests from their responsibility. Clergy who violate their ordination vows should be held accountalble. But it does require some sense of faith to salvage those who have fallen. Clergy are necessarialy community based folks. And isolation from the community of faith brings punishment when there may be no evidence of a crime.
However, when power politics are the name of the game in a particular diocese, the political jockeying to be in the “right” group often isolates some clerics. No longer is the clericus the place where the normal collegiality which should provide a sense of community for a priest or deacon. In our diocese we have other organizations that provide clergy collegial support. But in the past even those organizations were also co-opted by the powers of the diocese.
There seems to be an open season on clergy in the diocese. Even the hint of impropriety can bring a priest to inhibition or shunning. And yet when there was a clear case of repeated abuse by a priest, no inhibition was made. While in some cases, no inhibition is made, just accusations with no opportunity for refutation is given. And if recent cases are to be used as evidence, the lack of promptness in dealing with investigations and legal proceedings lead to the abuse of the inhibition. Hopefully the powers that be in the diocese will see to a prompt resolution of this inhibition. Meanwhile it is my responsibility to raise up such proceedings to the light because it is only in the light do we see the truth.