Churches and Organizational Ethics: The Need for Whistleblower Protections

Church should be a place where we can grow. Grow in faith. Grow in love. Grow in knowledge. And grow in ethics.
But in the category of ethics, churches increasingly have abrogated their role as role models for ethical behavior. At a time when government agencies and publicly traded for-profit organizations operate under multiple layers of whistleblower protection, the one place where you can still face unbridled retaliation and harassment for exposing corruption and abuse is the faith community. Given the prevalence of misconduct in churches, including sexual abuse and embezzlement, churches that fail to adopt whistleblower protections place themselves needlessly at risk, and thus abuse the trust of their members.

To understand the importance of whistleblowers, consider the federal government. There, most federal employees are covered by the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989, which offers protection to federal employees and applicants who complain of possible fraud, waste, mismanagement, violations of policy or law, or imminent threats to health and safety.

Moreover, whistleblowers help ensure the integrity of the federal procurement system. Under the False Claims Act, private citizens who learn of fraud involving the federal government have standing to file a qui tam suit against persons or organizations involved in the fraud. There’s a powerful incentive for them to do so, too, for private plaintiffs in qui tam actions share in the government’s recovery, with one plaintiff receiving $104 million dollars.

In addition, myriad protections exist for whistleblowers under other federal statutes, most notably under the Occupational Safety and Health Act and under the Fair Labor Standards Act. Penalties for violating these provisions can be draconian, and include the possibility of administrative sanctions, criminal and civil penalties, and the possibility of punitive damages, which is sometimes referred to as the “nuclear option.” Indeed, one large pharmaceutical company was slapped with a $2 billion civil fine under the Federal False Claims Act.

In the case of publicly traded companies, the MCI and Enron scandals, and the collapse of Lehman Brothers, led to the passage of Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) and Gramm-Rudman. These federal measures establish whistleblower protections at all publicly traded companies. Further, they prohibit all employers from retaliating against whistleblowers. And in a sweeping but still not widely implemented provision, they treat any effort to retaliate against someone who files a claim with a federal official as the criminal offense of obstruction of justice, even if the complaint does not involve potential corporate wrongdoing, and even if the persons involved are not in an employer/employee relationship. Thus, if person A files a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and person B, a neighbor, harasses person A for doing so, the federal government may bring criminal charges against person B. Those provisions may ultimately become akin to the Racketeering Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). There, the broad definition of RICO entities, combined with the act’s civil forfeiture provisions, have proven to afford powerful protections not entirely recognized at the time the measure was enacted.

Despite these provisions, there is in most cases no requirement that churches and other housedIn the case of churches and other nonprofits, there is no provision that requires adoption of whistleblower protections. The IRS incentivizes nonprofits to do so by including a question about this on the 990 filing, which is an annual requirement for most nonprofits. Unfortunately, churches are exempt from filing 990’s, and thus are largely immune to the IRS’ gentle pressure in this space.

Other groups, including numerous watchdog groups, recognize the value of whistleblowers in nonprofit governance. For instance, the DC Bar Association recommends adoption of whistleblower protections for “at least three reasons,” including:

1. Establishing a whistleblower policy is a proactive response to the IRS’s increased interest governance policies.

2. Protecting whistleblowers is an essential component of an ethical and open work environment.

3. A written whistleblower policy that is vigorously enforced sends a message to the organization’s board members, managers, employees and volunteers as well as to the IRS and the public that the organization will not tolerate misconduct.

It is the dearth of legal protections for volunteers that pose particular problems for churches. In most churches, the vast majority of workers are volunteers. Volunteers handle cash offerings, process pledges, and are often the first to hear reports of potential sexual abuse and other misconduct. Moreover, most denominations (this author’s, The Episcopal Church, included) insist that board members and other local leaders adhere to a fiduciary standard of care–the highest under American law. Yet if they act as fiduciaries and address issues of fraud, waste, mismanagement, or clergy misconduct, volunteers run the risk of retaliation by clergy, lay leaders and peers.

That is doubly troubling, since most churches adhere to governance standards that would make the average corporate compliance officer cringe. My belief, based on my own, first-hand experiences, as well as anecdotes from numerous friends and acquaintances, is that churches frequently violate the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and the overtime provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Additionally, most clergy have scant knowledge of such issues, and thus must rely on laity to highlight questionable employment or governance practices.

There’s also ample evidence that ethical lapses extend to the very highest echelons in our churches. For instance, the two sexual abuse survivors on the papal task force to address sexual abuse have both been forced out by church officials. This has been widely reported in the media, yet there is no sign that the church is prepared to address the matter. Meanwhile, Cardinal Pell, one of the highest ranking officials in the Vatican, has been described as “almost sociopathic,” in his treatment of those abused by priests, and currently is facing criminal charges due to allegations that he has sexually abused others. And in the Church of England, closely connected with this author’s church, top bishops turned a willfully blind eye to allegations of sexual abuse by Bishop Bell.

Would a whistleblower policy have prevented these situations? We’ll never know. But if we are to live into our call to show care and compassion for all persons, we must do everything possible to both protect and encourage those who bring light to the darkness by exposing wrongdoing and questionable practices in our houses of worship. And it is high time that our churches catch up to the private sector and government when it comes to whistleblowers and organizational ethics.

About Eric Bonetti

I'm a cradle Episcopalian, living in Northern Virginia. My interests include writing, policy, sports, cooking, volunteer work, good food and wine, and teaching kids' cooking classes. I retired in 2017 and now just work for fun. I'm also a regular contributor to Episcopal Cafe, and have been published at HuffPo and other major sites and publications.
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