The Trouble With Title IV

I’ve written before about Title IV, which is the collection of clergy disciplinary canons in The Episcopal Church. And while recent changes are largely for the good, there remain some serious shortcomings.

As illustrated by the +Bruno and +Cook cases, the biggest shortcoming is that, while there are multiple paths forward within Title IV, there aren’t multiple paths forward to address disciplinary matters.

Or, in other words, how do you address an issue with possible substance abuse, as in the Cook case? Or a serial bully, as in the +Bruno case? Because ajudicatories are often reluctant to cross the Rubicon of Title IV, the entire process becomes binary. Either the behavior is so egregious that it simply can’t be ignored, or it gets brushed off.

And so it was with both +Cook and +Bruno. Years of warning signs were ignored, until things reached a head. In Cook’s case, the end result was the death of 41-year-old cyclist John Palermo. In the case of +Bruno, the result was turmoil and disruption to the entire diocese of Los Angeles and hundreds of fractured relationships, many of which will never be healed.

In short, Title IV often does too little, too late.

So what’s the solution? In the case of bishops, the presiding bishop needs to get over the whole hand-wringing routine, and exercise her or his authority to issue a pastoral directive. Per the canons, this can happen absent a disciplinary proceeding. In my opinion, this can and should happen more often, for if it does, debacles like the mess in the +Bruno case could have been prevented. Moreover, early intervention would have left +Bruno’s reputation intact. In short, everyone would have benefitted.

Perhaps there would be less reluctance to this route if the presiding bishop had access to a panel of bishops, canonically created, with the authority to advise and consent in these matters. Or perhaps the House of Bishops could establish a mechanism to police its own, before things get ugly.

Similarly, many a bishop diocesan would find life a lot easier over time if there were better local structures to head off problems. My observation is that a great many clergy go over the Title IV cliff simply because no one warned them off before things came to a head. And in some cases, clergy who are able to lie and bluster their way out of a Title IV proceeeding are the worse for doing so, for they wind up victims of public opinion, which can be far more aggressive than the remedies one can expect in the majority of Title IV cases.

Is the solution quick and easy? No, it isn’t. But as it stands, Episcopal polity leaves gaping holes in our ability to respond effectively to trouble in the church.

Perhaps the Standing Committee on Constitition and Canons could add this to its to-do list. Might be very much worth the effort.

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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