I’ve written about this before, but with litigation now ramping up against perjuring priest Bob Malm, his family, Grace Church, and the diocese, I am reflecting anew on why the parish and diocese are unlikely to spring back from the hot mess that Bob leaves behind.
As I see it, the problem is that the diocese and parish simply don’t get it. As in they don’t understand how to fix the underlying problems.
In recent years, even the Catholic church, long famous for trying to play hardball against anyone who called it to account, has learned that this approach simply makes things worse. Yes, the Catholic Church managed to buy years — some would say decades — of time with its coverups and no-hold barred litigation. But the day of reckoning has arrived, and it’s looking ugly. Yes, some dioceses have tried to restructure so as to place assets beyond the reach of creditors, and more than one diocese appears to be trying to play games with its cemeteries and other, less visible assets. But no matter how you parse it, Rome is shedding members in all directions, and even the Vatican itself appears poised to run a deficit. And I would be prepared to bet that very few of those leaving the Catholic Church will ever come back.
By contrast, the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia remains locked in a 1970’s approach to issues. When in doubt, deny everything. Then litigate, litigate, litigate, and hope you can sweep what’s left under the rug.
The problem is that conflict and misconduct don’t get resolved this way. Indeed, Bob Malm was a master at denying, avoiding, equivocating and doing everything in his power to to avoid addressing conflict or problems, even going so far as to lie in order to avoid dealing with things. But instead of taking the approach that perjuring priest Bob Malm is gone, and it’s a new day at Grace where people tell the truth and deal openly and honestly with conflict, the diocese is playing the very same games. That includes claiming that perjury is okay as long as no criminal charges result.
Sadly enough, there are still parishioners who like and admire Bob. And that’s likely to continue until the diocese has the integrity to openly disclose perjuring priest Bob Malm’s misconduct. Or, as the Rev. Robin Hammeal-Urban notes in her book on misconduct, it is only through disclosure that the church heals. Absent this, churches will, almost without exception, hold onto patterns of dysfunction that will extend for decades.
Unfortunately, this level of integrity simply doesn’t exist, either at Mayo House or the parish vestry. From the bishops, to JP Causey, right on down, it’s all about protecting the organization and its turf, versus doing what’s right. “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free,” simply doesn’t apply. Instead, the diocese and parish cling to, “It’s our lie, and our church, and we’ll do whatever we damn well want, thank you. And your response will be, ‘Thank you Sir, may I have another?’” Even at the vestry, there’s the whole, “well, people liked Bob—do we really want to go there?,” routine.
That also poses a problem for the next rector. Remember the old joke about not wanting to join any club that would have me as a member? Well, the same holds true for Grace. Specifically, any rector worth having is going to want to know that steps have been taken to come to terms with the past, to heal, to learn, and to grow. With that not happening, good candidates are going to take a pass. As one priest said to me about Grace, “God help whoever’s next. You couldn’t pay me enough.”
Nor is Michael Guy going to cut it. While he seems to be more sincere than was perjuring priest Bob Malm, his positive comments and his hints about forgiveness fall far short of what it is going to take to get the parish back on track.
Even worse, those candidates who might be willing to work with these problems face a further challenge, which is that the parish likely will still be in litigation one year after perjuring priest Bob Malm’s departure. Indeed, with litigation only now ramping up, we are probably at least a year away from any sort of outcome, which puts things close to the two-year mark. And for the record, I am not backing down any time soon. But then, five years into this conflict, folks hopefully realize that already. If nothing else, I outlasted Bob, and I can outlast Grace.
Nor do I think that Bishop Goff or the other fat cats at Mayo House have the integrity to admit that they are wrong. Yes, they might say pretty words in order to try to shut down the conflict, but actually owning up to the mess they have made of things and bringing in experts to fix it? You’ll sooner see a snowman in the fierce flames of the furnace room of hell on a hot day. In fact, one of the reasons for the current state of affairs is that, when Pat Wingo went on sabbatical, he had offered in writing that I could reach out to Bishop Goff if I needed help working through issues with Bob. That’s exactly what I did, only to have Susan take a pass. Meanwhile, Shannon Johnston, with his amazing ability to screw things up, had already sent out a letter in support of Bob, while ignoring my response to him.
Neither does Grace have the necessary introspection. My bet is that the vestry will try to get a rector in in who’s good at conflict resolution and hope for the best. But given that she or he will not enjoy meaningful support from the diocese, nor have an accurate perspective on conflict within the parish, that dog won’t hunt. And the parish does not realize that it cannot win the current litigation. Yes, it could prevail in court, but that simply adds fuel to the fire and guarantees that the conflict will continue. (Not to mention giving that much more for me and others to write about.) Put in other words, Bob threw the parish under the bus, but folks are blinded to that reality by their loyalty to Bob and their reluctance to admit their own mistakes.
That brings up a final but important point: The diocese tends to try to convince itself that it knows how to fix conflict, so it is unlikely to bring in outside experts. That said, the diocese is spectacularly bad at dealing with conflict, and in the case of Grace Church, a full-fledged intervention is necessary. Outside resources need to come in, wade through the mess, then discuss specific steps towards normalcy, including:
– Talking to others, versus about others.
– Avoiding triangulation.
– Assuming good intent.
– Respecting all opinions and perspectives, even if they are unpopular.
– Backing away from the emotion inherent in conflict.
– Recognizing that, approached properly, conflict can be a profoundly positive experience.
– Establishing written norms.
In short, any sort of resolution starts with the diocese recognizing that Bob occupied the position of power, as is always the case with relationships between clergy and congregants. Thus, it is incumbent for the diocese to start the painful but necessary process of telling the truth, which includes the fact that clergy are always responsible for maintaining appropriate boundaries — always. And that includes not lying about your parishioners, as Bob has done in my case, trying to bully them, or engaging in Bob’s manipulative games. Or, for that matter, committing perjury.
To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, “Bishop Goff, come tear down Bob’s lies. Come tell the truth.”