Thursday, February 18, 2010

A News Report from WBGN TV made this report yesterday:

Another alleged victim of sex abuse comes forward against a retired priest from Susquehanna County.

Action News Reporter (WBNG) Leigh Dana spoke to him exclusively Tuesday night and has more on why he's seeking closure nearly 20 years later.
This victim now lives on the west coast and asked that we keep his identity hidden.
He speaks out in hopes more people will do the same against Father Ralph Elwood Johnson.
"I've repressed the feelings for so many years and I need to come out and say this stuff is not right and I can't live with the guilt in my conscious anymore," he said.
The now 29 year old victim unlocks his past from when he says he was forced to have sexual relations with Father Ralph Elwood Johnson here at the priest's Gibson home.
Johnson was arrested 2 weeks ago for allegedly having sex with a teenage boy nearly 20 years ago.
The victim says he was 11 when it all started in 1992.
"What Ralph Johnson is doing and has done is very wrong and this needs to be addressed," he said.
And after trying to get help from the Central New York Dioceses last month, he still feels abused.
"They were trying to discourage me from pursuing this because they don't want the negative fallout that comes with it." (Bold, mine)
Now, he's seeking justice and wants others who may have been molested by Johnson to step forward.
"If there are any victims out there that have been abused by Ralph Johnson and have not come forward and felt they might get discouraged, please go to your local law enforcement agencies. Don't be discouraged by doing so."
In 2006, 2 other alleged victims came forward claiming Johnson sexually abused them.

This issue will not stop coming to the fore. So much for the “Passionate presence of Christ.”! When our diocesan officials do not stand for truth, Christ’s passionate presence cannot be seen. The stance of avoidance and denial that has characterized the responsibility of the Diocese of CNY as this whole matter began to be exposed almost 7 years ago is shaming. As we begin Lent, we of the Episcopal Diocese of Central NY should be asking for forgiveness for failing to call our Diocesan staff to account for this hiding behind whatever laws seem to be convenient. The sin of Ralph Johnson is bad enough.

The Church needs to make amends. We cannot hide behind “our insurance doesn’t cover that.” Or “it wasn’t on my watch.” If we are to be the ‘Compassionate presence of Christ,’ we need to step up to the plate and pay our dues. We need to be paying for the therapy bills of those who were abused. We need to be backing the victims in their faith and struggle. But the victims often get labeled as “alcoholics, or itinerants, or unstable” simply because a priest in their youth scrambled their development. The sin of ignoring them and trying to hide it is much worse abuse than what Johnson may have done.

There will be more accusations made. It is the nature of such situations that there were many who were abused. There will be suits made against the diocese because the Diocesan personnel turned these victims away or distrusted their accusations. If the bishop had faced into this case 7 years ago we would not be getting a black eye in the press today. But a black eye is nothing in comparison to the misery that this sin of one man has left with the broken lives of the victims.

As I have said before, this problem will never get better for the parish, the people of the parish, the victims, the clergy of the diocese, the whole of the diocese until the whole matter is brought out in the open and cleansed. We cannot move on until it happens. At this point I would want to see someone from outside the diocese to be commissioned by the Standing Committee to look at this issue.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Future of Holy Communion

Working across denominational lines allows me to ask questions of both traditions of Church that normally we do not ask. And the question that seems to be being raised for me is “Who is in and who is out?” Issues of membership, who may vote, who may lead are not the issues that I want to address. Those questions may spin off the deeper and underlying question of who is considered a part of the Christian community and more importantly who may receive Communion?
This question has arisen because of a pastoral concern. A young Japanese exchange student has attended with her host family. She is not a baptized Christian but she goes to a Christian school in her home country. She comes to the altar rail with her host family. Her English is not good enough to explain to me her faith or her understanding of it. I have no Japanese to share with her the wonder of the relationship with Jesus. Yet her eagerness to be a part of our Christian community is apparent. She listens intently to the sermons and she observes with wonder the whole of the worship service. Her eyes glisten as she comes to the altar rail. I cannot refuse her the sacrament.
My theology of the sacrament is fairly catholic. I believe there is grace in the act of receiving Christ’ body and blood. God acts in this ritual and radical act of inclusion. I have always communed the young. I like placing a drop of the wine on the infant’s tongue at her baptism. We do not wait until a child understands nutrition before we feed him. But to commune someone whose background is not Christian stretches even my understanding of what reception of the sacrament means. Perhaps it is the singular enthusiasm of the young woman that allows me to have no compunction in communing her, but it does raise real theological questions for me.
What does Holy Communion mean in the scheme of faith? I know that it is in the Body and Blood of Christ where I encounter Christ most fully. Not only is it the place where my God shares with me a taste of divinity, it is also where I meet God in the incarnated love of others of my church family. It is where I know that I am one with all of Creation through the invitation to Christ’s feast. But I also know that in Holy Communion Christ offers the hospitality of what it means to be welcome in the community of fellow Christians.
One of the places where I believe that the Church must improve for the future is in the area of hospitality. Christ welcomed all. He ate with those who were not acceptable among the upper crust of his society. He welcomed the poor, the excluded, the sick and the outcasts to a society that was rigidly stratified. All too often churches use this invitation to be one with Christ as a way of determining who is in and who is out.
Some denominations feel that they must ‘guard’ the sacrament so that only ‘members’ or those who believe in a particular way receive it. Consequently, this ultimate sign of hospitality, of welcome and unity becomes a stumbling block to the meaning of the sign of God’s presence in our lives.
Even more unsettling is the way that Holy Communion is used by those who disagree with each other. In the Anglican Communion and among the various Lutheran synods we use the sacrament to comment on our ideological stances. When I hear Christians say that they are not “in communion” with other Christians I wonder how they can claim their faith. It is Christ who welcomes us to the sacrament. Christ is the host, not a particular juridical body. The deeper I enter into the sacramental relationship to which Christ invites me; I know I cannot exclude anyone whom Christ invites to the table.
If our crossing of denominational lines tells us anything, it is that our unity in Christ is going to depend upon our hospitality. We can no longer stand upon membership, baptism, articles of faith, canon law, or ideology if the sacrament is going to mean anything to successive generations. If our sacraments cannot sign the welcome, hospitality and peace that Christ’s life proclaims, then I question whether the Church is going to be able to be a credible witness to Christ’s life.
So how will judicatories address the theology and the need to control God’s welcome? Hopefully through the sharing of community that is happening as our various denominations share clergy and combine, we are going to be able to trust God to “guard” the sacrament and open our hearts, minds and souls to those who come to Christ in different ways.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Sexual Misconduct: Redux

Once again the issue of Ralph Johnson comes up. He was arrested in Northern PA yesterday for molesting a boy while serving in the early nineties. In my early days in the diocese, he served a parish that was considered one of the diocesan ‘plums’. It was a parish that had a significant endowment and was a going concern in the Southern Tier. The man was removed from St. Paul’s, Owego in the mid-eighties but he was he never brought up on charges in the church. Why?

Why was and is child abuse so hard to address? Of course it is hard to get children to point out their abusers. The laws make it very difficult for children, and parents do not want their children to have to go through such trauma. But there had always been evidence in Ralph Johnson’s case. There were always parents who knew, children who knew and diocesan clergy who knew. So why was he allowed to continue in the ministry? Why was he allowed to besmirch the reputation of the good clergy of the diocese?

This was under +David Joselyn’s watch. He who was so aggressive in the bringing down of Wally Frey of St. David’s, Dewitt, why did he allow Johnson to continue as a priest? Was it inattention? Or after the defrocking of Frey, was the diocese too afraid to publicize yet another pedophile in its midst? OR was it the advice of lawyers who were afraid of litigation who advised against making Johnson’s profligacy public?

Pedophilia is a horrible crime. It not only damages a child and his whole family, but it damages the whole fabric of the parish and diocese too. For years the parish that has had an abusive priest on its staff has to deal with not only the damage done to the child, but the way that people interact. Sexual misconduct creates a mistrust that cannot be erased by just removing the priest. The whole climate of the congregation is affected. Usually if there is sexual misconduct, the crossing of personal boundaries, there are usually other boundaries that the pedophile has crossed. In most cases there are financial boundaries that have been violated. The congregation develops a code of secrecy that complicates the sorting out of the the history and proper attention to the real problems in the congregation.

There is the secrecy that is promoted by the parents of the children so that they do not have to deal with the fact that their child was one “of those children.” There is the denial of parents who cannot accept the fact that they were not able to protect their children. There is the fear that if their son was violated, could their son be gay? There is the secrecy that comes from a people who felt duped by someone who could violate their children. They often just drift away from the church angry and often faithless, OR they stay with the congregation NEVER talking about the betrayal of Christian values, never getting the pastoral care they need to forgive themselves, the priest, or even the children who were victimized. They blame themselves, they blame gay folk, they blame “society”, they blame everyone but the man who violated the trust that he had been given at his ordination.

The subsequent rectors are often the victims of such betrayers because they have to deal with all the fallout. And usually the fallout is so bizarre and so from left field that the priest never knows what hit him. If she does not know the history of the abuse when she takes the parish, something will come up and bite her. He doesn’t know why he can’t recruit acolytes or there is a strong custom of adult acolytes in the parish. She doesn’t understand the hidebound financial structures that she encounters in the parish and the secrecy that attends to those structures. It usually takes the subsequent rector years of ministry to uncover that there was a priest who violated the trust of the parish who preceded him/her. The parish system is broken and cannot be fixed by simple statements of “we need to move on.”

When a priest is allowed to abuse children without having to be accountable to the church, the whole of the clergy get it in the eye too. When I served in the Diocese of Washington, there had been a couple of instances of sexual misconduct that outraged the clergy of the diocese. A chapter the National Episcopal Clergy Association was active there and took on the issue as a desire to “police” our own profession. It meant that we did not turn away when we knew a fellow cleric was in trouble. There was a pastoral element in it AND an accountability element to it that meant that the monkey was not JUST on the back of the bishop. It was an understanding that justice for the victim, the priest also meant justice for them too.

Here in Central NY we have no such affinity for justice in this diocese. In the case of Ralph Johnson not only was there avoidance, there was a concerted effort by members of the diocese to ‘silence’ those of us who were trying to expose his crimes. There was such a fear that whatever we might say could not be “controlled”. It led to accusations about us that were not true and have even been proven false in church courts. But the distrust continues. Why?

What is being exposed NOW is the system of denial that reigns in the diocese. What comes to light is the complicity of many of the clergy of this diocese who have supported the efforts of the diocese to suppress these crimes of Johnson. “That happened a long time ago” they say. Those who voice “we need to move on” just do not understand the dynamics of sexual misconduct. Without a commitment to justice for the victims, justice for the parishes,and justice for those of us who tried to address the problem, WE CAN’T MOVE ON! Not until the garbage is cleaned out, can we ever have a diocese that doesn’t stink with indifference. No 'listening process' can alleviate this distrust. The stain on the leadership is too deep; the damage too great, the pain too sharp and the distrust too yawning to fix.