Tuesday, June 16, 2020
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.”
Monday, February 17, 2020
As Grace’s discernment committee begins the long, arduous road towards finding a successor to Bob Malm, the unpleasant reality of the mess Bob left behind looms. That includes the various lawsuits now under way against the parish, the diocese, and members of Bob’s family, which were precipitated by Bob Malm’s conduct as rector.
It’s also true that neither the parish, nor the diocese, can win in court.
What do I mean by that? Couldn’t they find some way to get the current cases dismissed?
The answer is simple. All litigation involves hazards and risks. So yes, the church and the diocese could conceivably obtain favorable results in court. But that doesn’t mean they actually win.
As with many conflicts, the current conflict is one that involves myriad issues. Many are not amenable to resolution in court. These include:
- The church’s reputation.
- Interpersonal dynamics within the parish.
- The church’s role in the community.
Moreover, a victory would help those with their heads in the sand assure themselves that, in fact, Bob Malm could not have committed perjury and otherwise been abusive.
I mean, he’s such a good guy. He’s caring. He married us. He baptized my kids. His sermons are great. Anyone who thinks otherwise is deluded, maybe dangerous, certainly dysfunctional.
These are the logical fallacies and magical thinking that the Kemp Williams, Jean Reeds, Easter Thompsons, Susan Goffs and others in the church and diocese deploy to avoid dealing with the inconvenient truth, which is that Bob Malm is a bully, a liar, a perjurer, and someone who thinks it’s okay to try to drag a dying woman into court. One has only to read Sugarland Chiow’s courtroom rhetoric and fabrications to realize just how toxic this paradigm has become. Or as one Episcopal priest with first-hand knowledge of the issues at Grace says, “They have a lot of work to do.”
Thus, a courtroom victory would allow the blind sycophants in the parish to brush things off, assure themselves that that damned Bonetti is “unhinged,” and return to their toxic ways, oblivious to the damage they cause to a church they claim to love. But if they love Grace church so much, why do they behave in a way that is causing lasting harm to the parish?
Think about it: In all the emails from within the parish, we consistently see Bob Malm trying to stoke fears, while Jean Reed, Kemp Williams and others claim to be able to do what no licensed mental health professional may legally or ethically do, which is to opine on the mental health of someone with whom they have not met to discuss the matter directly. Yet in the midst of this bloviating within the parish, the one thing one never sees is any concern for the person who, in Jean Reed’s words, is “troubled.” Perhaps church members would do well to spend less time gossiping about others, and more time dealing with their own shortcomings. In fact, if they did, they might come to understand why neutral third parties say, “They may seem sane to themselves, but this group of parishioners seems hateful and childish to outsiders looking at their behavior.”
Nor is the diocese any better.
From that corner, we get the laughably appalling notion that clergy misconduct is only actionable if it it illegal. That conclusion enjoys the full support of Bishop Susan Goff, the Rev. Melissa Hollerith (who, amusingly, teaches ethics at St. Albans, and whose husband Randy is dean of the National Cathedral), and undoubtedly that of JP Causey, the diocesan chancellor. The latter is noteworthy, as his capacity for bad legal advice appears to know no bounds. For example, in the Title IV case at St. Thomas’ in McLean, Causey would seem to be the knucklehead who suggested to the Virginia bishops that they ignore the requirement of Title IV to provide a pastoral response to the congregation, but instead to keep the matter at arm’s length for fear of liability. The result was lasting damage and hard feelings within the parish. Nothing like protecting the organization at the expense of the people who make it up, huh?
And the cluelessness continues. The Rev. Sven vanBaars, the dingbat intake officer who thinks that clergy misconduct is only actionable if it results in criminal prosecution, has been elected as a delegate to general convention (GC). I guess that’s good—he can hang with fellow delegate JP Causey at the upcoming GC in Baltimore and commiserate about the protesters outside.
The bottom line is this: Until Grace Episcopal learns to be a church, versus a religious club, and worships God, versus Bob Malm, it will decline.
Yes, Bob’s carefully crafted communications have all the right church-speak and Jesus-babble, developed through observation, mimicry and repetition, but they are empty, hollow. Similarly, the church building is full of bright shiny things, carefully polished, but they mean nothing.
Same for the friendly, welcoming congregation. Yes, people are cordial, but criticize Bob Malm and see just how long that welcome lasts. Just check out the comments from the parishioner urging me to commit suicide if you want proof.
Same for the church’s other promises. For example, giving is supposed to be confidential, but Lisa Medley has no problem posting details of your giving on social media, even though, true to form, she gets the specifics wrong. Would you really want her potentially posting details of your bequest to the church on social media? The Legacy Society (of which I was a member) promises confidentiality, but if the church cannot protect your information while you are alive, why would you think it will do so when you are dead?
Of course, it is true that parishioners have done an admirable job of stepping up giving, even as number of pledging units collapses and attendance drops to record lows.
But the reality is that this is a church that is still trying to defend Bob Malm’s perjury, his efforts to drag a dying woman into court, and his various courtroom fabrications. Indeed, one has only to look at Malm’s emails to diocesan officials, replete with calling me “sick,” “twisted,” and “dysfunctional,” to know just how toxic the parish has become. And in honor of Bob’s efforts, the church has named the “new” narthex after him!
Nor is time on the church’s side. With vast swaths of the church membership well into retirement, the next 10 years will result in major demographic shifts. And yes, bequests to the parish may buy time, but even if parish investments were adequate to fully carry the church’s operations, the church is nothing without people in it. (Covering just current operating and maintenance costs for the building would require an endowment of $3.75 million, for the record.)
Neither is the church’s role in the community likely to pull in members. With well under 3 percent of total revenue going to local outreach and the diocesan pledge seriously underfunded, the place is hardly a center for outreach, and it sure as hell isn’t doing any healing.
Going forward, the church’s only hope is to clean up its act. When people see that Grace Church really is what it claims to be, a center for outreach and healing, then it can begin to rebuild. But as long as it clings to the notion that Bob Malm could not, would not, be a bully and a perjurer, it is in dire trouble. Nor is it going to thrive when people in the church think it’s okay to call others “domestic terrorists;” to urge others to commit suicide; and for Alison Campbell, the altar guild, and the choir to play their childish games.
So yes, the church could win in court. But it can’t and won’t shut down the ability of people to criticize its actions, to discuss the parish in public and in cyberspace, and to warn people about the hypocrisy of life at Grace Episcopal. As the saying goes, the court of public opinion is open 24/7, 365 days a year, and there is irrefutable evidence that Grace is a toxic church where it’s okay for the rector to lie in court, and where this dynamic carries through into the daily life of the church.
And the truth will out, meaning that sooner or later, even the most diehard loyalists will find out that the parish is nothing but a pretty and whimsical illusion. And like the mirage of an oasis in a desert, getting tangled up with Grace Church may be a positive experience, even for a few years. But in the end, the painful reality sets in, which is that the church is anything but a safe refuge from the hot and barren desert.