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Streamlining: Dioceses Join Regional Disciplinary Board

[From the Dioceses of Western New York/Northwestern Pennsylvania]

The partnership dioceses have undertaken another initiative to streamline governance and administration in the church. At their convention last month, the dioceses [Western New York/Northwestern Pennsylvania] voted to join four other dioceses [Ohio, Pittsburgh, Southern Ohio, and West Virginia] in what will be the largest clergy disciplinary board compact in the church.

Handling disciplinary complaints against clergy, filed under Title IV of the Episcopal Church’s canons, is among the most labor-intensive processes in the church when managed on the diocesan level. The process requires an intake officer to field complaints, an investigator to look into them, advisors for both the claimant and the respondent, a church attorney to represent the diocese in the proceedings, and a disciplinary board that typically consists of seven to nine members. (For more detailed information, visit the church’s Title IV website.)

“One of the unintended consequences is that the requirements outstrip the capacity in many dioceses,” said Bishop Sean Rowe, who has been working to consolidate disciplinary functions across the church for more than ten years.

“It is also the case, that in some dioceses it can be difficult to find clergy who do not have conflicts of interest when it comes to sitting in judgment of other clergy from the same diocese,” he said.

The new regional disciplinary board includes the Dioceses of Ohio, Pittsburgh, Southern Ohio and West Virginia. Under the new arrangement, the six dioceses will each pick one clergy and one lay person to serve on the board. The president of the 13-member body will be a clergy member chosen by unanimous consent of the participating bishops.

The president of the board—along with the diocesan bishop and intake officer—would serve on any “reference panel” convened by one of the six member dioceses. Such panels determine whether to dismiss a report or refer it for further action. The other 12 members of the board would be called when cases progress to a “conference panel” or “hearing panel” later in the process.

“Thanks to videoconferencing software, a member of a regional disciplinary panel would no longer need to travel from Charleston, West Virginia to Buffalo to attend a meeting,” notes William A Powel III, canon to the ordinary and chancellor in the Diocese of Ohio. “It’s making the whole disciplinary structure and governance of the Episcopal Church more efficient.

“There is still a need for training, but it’s for a lot fewer people, from 50 plus down to 13.”

Powel said there has been “little resistance” to the compact so far. “We had six lawyers poking, prodding and stress testing it to make it sound from a procedural point of view,” he said. “I think we will be taking a step in the dark with managing the process in six dioceses, but everyone wants to make this work.”

The new structure should accommodate future disciplinary cases, Powel said. Title IV cases often end early in the potentially lengthy process, he said, noting that in the last five years, none of the six dioceses in the compact has had to convene a hearing panel.

The new board is the third multi-diocesan disciplinary arrangement in the church. The Dioceses of Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont maintain a combined disciplinary board, as do the Dioceses of California, El Camino Real, Northern California and San Joaquin. However, the combined board that includes the partnership dioceses is the first to work across provincial boundaries.

“The goal is to demonstrate this can be done across province, across region,” Rowe said. “We are trying to show that this is a model that can work at a larger scale. If other dioceses want to join in, we can add them.”

Rowe is hoping that the creation of the disciplinary board will encourage consolidation in other roles as well. He said the church currently trains more than 1,100 individuals for duplicative roles in a disciplinary system for roughly 7,000 clergy.

There is no reason that dioceses cannot share intake officers, church attorneys, advisors to the complainant and respondent and the conciliators who are sometimes brought into the process, he said.

“Title IV has evolved toward restorative justice, dispersed authority and decision-making,” Rowe said. “This requires a number of people with a number of different skill sets to make this happen.

“Across six dioceses we should have people who would be good on a pastoral care response team. We should be able to staff this appropriately so the title functions the way it is supposed to function. Right now, we can’t do that.

“If we care about victims, we need advocates and pastoral response teams. If we care about the accused and want to make sure they get adequate defense, we need to make sure people are available for those positions. Right now, not everybody has that.”

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