Whistleblower Protection: The Time to Act is Now

When I look at the recent news stories, including Bishop Bruno and his erstwhile land deal, the sex scandal in the Church of England, the allegations around Cardinal Pell, the Heather Cook scandal, and even the recent arrest of an Episcopal priest in Florida, the one common thread I see is the need for whistleblower protection.

Remember my earlier post on privacy, secrecy, and transparency? In it, I pointed out that churches must respect privacy, while being called to transparency. But in cases of wrongdoing, the need for disclosure overrides privacy interests.

Unfortunately, it is at that point that things fall apart, for the power structures in church provide powerful disincentives to disclosure. Yes, Sarbanes-Oxley, the federal anti-corruption measure, includes nonprofit corporations in its anti retaliation provisions, but this doesn’t go far enough. Many church assets are held by unincorporated entities and thus may be outside the purview of the measure. At the same time, the measure doesn’t address the vast majority of church workers–those who serve on a volunteer basis. To make matters worse, there is the traditional reluctance of courts to wade into ecclesiastical waters. All of which is a long way of saying, “Don’t hold your breath. If you are a church whistleblower, chances are you will get your clock cleaned.”

Or, to put it in other terms, behaviors that would get me fired when I worked at AT&T, and possibly imprisoned, go on all the time in churches. This includes retaliation against people who alert authorities to possible misuse of funds, bank fraud, workplace harassment and more. Thus, churches, which should set an ethical example, are taking up the rear, even compared to the rather shaky record of corporate America.

In the examples above, we see that Cardinal Pell apparently has silenced sexual abuse survivors by removing them from the relevant papal commission. Meanwhile, one surmises that others have been aware of +Bruno’s shenanigans for some time, yet it appears that only now are his actions receiving appropriate scrutiny. And Lord Carey and the Anglican hierarchy repeatedly ignored or marginalized those who complained of Bishop Bell’s shocking behavior, indeed even aiding in Bell’s return to power after his first run-in with the law. Lastly, there is ample evidence that Heather Cook’s issues with substance abuse were well known in some circles, yet never made their way to anyone who could address the matter in a meaningful way.

But how might these situations have played out if whistleblowers were both protected and encouraged? It takes a brave person to buck the trappings of power, and those who do so often are marginalized by clergy and fellow parishioners alike, even though both may have scant idea as to what actually transpired. So, while we have no idea how things would have turned out had whistleblower protections, we may surely conclude that those who do speak truth to power deserve our support.

Moreover, church hierarchies are every bit as bad as local clergy and laity. In such cases, church officials often have little concept of whistleblowing and why it is wrong to engage in retaliation. Indeed, my experience is that denominational officials will often chide complainants who expose wrongdoing, conveniently overlooking the fact that Jesus himself had scant patience for the Scribes and Pharisees, and others who abused their power.

Whistleblower protection may serve another useful role, which is in protecting victims against further suffering. Victims of clergy abuse often suffer incredible trauma, which is made worse when they are brushed off or disbelieved by church officials. Thus, while whistleblower protections cannot hope to undo the harm caused by abusive clergy, they can open the door toward the first steps toward healing, which include disclosure and being believed. It is only when victims know that they will be listened to, treated with respect, and that there is a process to love and care for all involved that we can hope to truly address clergy abuse.

In 2018, during our triennial general convention, The Episcopal Church’s Standing Commission on Constitution and Canons. otherwise known as the SCCC, will introduce a measure to add whistleblower protection to our canons. I hope that GC will wholeheartedly support this measure, particularly in light of the tremendous pain and suffering we have seen in the Heather Cook case, the +Bruno case, and elsewhere.



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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