This is a sad post that I wish I didn’t have to get up. This is actually my first venture into mainstream Protestantism. Most of the time I write about evangelical issues, Acts 29, the Evangelical Free Church of America and other topics such as atheism and doubt. I was approached by Eric Bonetti who told me about his situation with Grace Episcopal Church in Alexandria, Virginia. I became sad to hear about what happened and told Eric that he is free to publish whatever he would like to here at The Wondering Eagle. I write quite a bit about churches in the Washington, D.C. area. So this situation falls into that perspective. This story was first told over at The Wartburg Watch. The original post was taken down, and this post stood in its place. “Good Faith Discussions On Both Side Have Led to a Resolution Between Eric Bonetti and Grace Episcopal Church.”
Eric I am sorry this developed. My hope is that you find peace and closure. Also that your family is spared from harassment. Your story gave me hope that I would find peace one day. My hope is that you will find peace. Perhaps this and other blog posts can help bring the Episcopal Church back to the table. Until that develops this blog is yours to use as you see fit.
Rector Files Possibly False Police Report
Readers of The Wartburg Watch may remember a story from fall 2016 covering allegations of shunning and other spiritual abuse at Grace Episcopal church in Alexandria Virginia. The article recounted reports that rector Bob Malm had instructed clergy, staff, and lay leaders in the parish to shun a parishioner, Eric Bonetti, and members of his family, after Bonetti complained of bullying and gross mismanagement by the rector. To make matters worse, the Episcopal diocese of Virginia, which was promptly informed of Malm’s misconduct, repeatedly ignored requests to intervene.
This post updates readers on developments since the article ran at The Wartburg Watch, as well as recent disturbing actions on the part of the rector. While I am not particularly familiar with the dynamics of mainline denominations, this situation appears to be a particularly troubling abuse of power, both at the diocesan and parish level. Further, the parish’s response, which seems greatly influenced by the rector and his actions, is disturbing.
To update readers, since the article on The Wartburg Watch, the diocese of Virginia intervened. A series of meetings were held, including one in Fredericksburg involving the Rev. Malm, Eric and others. Details have largely been kept confidential, but it is my understanding that the following key areas of agreement were reached:
The Rev. Malm would stop shunning and bullying parishioners.
Eric would be welcome in the unlikely event he wanted to attend Grace Church.
Eric would shutter his blog recounting his experience of being shunned, with the understanding that other members of his family and friends were also blogging about the matter (in his words, “blogging up a storm”), that they likely would continue to do so despite efforts to reduce tensions, and that all involved needed to be okay with that. In short, the agreement applied only to those persons actually in the room.
Given that Eric’s family was not included in the Fredericksburg meeting, it should come as no surprise that several continued to blog, and are doing so to this day. Some of their comments are angry. Some helpful. Some petty. Some funny. But none appear to be defamatory or threatening. Instead, they appear to reflect the normal range of emotions people experience when their trust is betrayed by clergy.
Flash forward to September of 2017. At that point, Eric became increasingly aware that tensions remained high, and that family members were increasingly irritated by the situation. Specific concerns included:
- A written suggestion by a parishioner that Eric “go kill himself.”
- A written threat by another church member to interfere with his spouse’s employment.
- Other inappropriate communications from members of Grace Church.
- A “fauxpology” from a clergyperson who previously worked at Grace Church, that among other things inappropriately revealed certain pastoral confidences.
In an effort to quell things, Eric wrote to the Rev. Malm and the diocese, suggesting that both sides publicly make peace as a way to show that there were no sides to take in the matter. While diocesan officials encouraged this approach, the Rev. Malm brushed aside the suggestion. Not to be deterred, Eric contacted Episcopal Bishop Susan Goff, who similarly refused her assistance.
In November 2017, Eric was contacted by diocesan staff, seeking his assistance in tamping down online criticism of the church from his family. By that time confronted with his own serious health issues, the challenges of two family members nearing end of life, and a busy time at work, Eric declined to get involved, but emailed a series of observations and suggestions to the diocese that he hoped would at least provide a framework for resolution of the conflict.
That seemed to be the end of things.
Then, on December 21, Eric received a call at a non-public work number from SGT Salas of the Alexandria police department. During the conversation, SGT Salas indicated that the Rev. Malm feared for his safety due to the blogging of Eric’s family members. He also suggested that parishioners and even children in the parish were in fear.
Eric declined to get involved, and the conversation ended with SGT Salas allegedly telling Eric, “Until this matter is resolved, you will immediately be arrested if you enter church property. Subsequently, Eric discovered that SGT Salas had left his jurisdiction, traveled to Fairfax County, ignored no trespassing signs at Eric’s condominium, and entered his locked condo building to leave a note on the door. The seeming message, “We know where you are, and we’re watching you.”
Eric immediately filed an internal affairs complaint with the city of Alexandria, complaining of SGT Salas’ efforts at intimidation; his threat of arrest, which was linked to resolution of the conflict; SGT Salas’ involvement in a civil matter involving internal church matters; and his inaccurate portrayal of family member blogs as potentially involving terroristic threats. He also noted that SGT Salas’ threat specifically violated the agreement reached with Shannon Johnston, the Episcopal bishop of Virginia, regarding being welcome at Grace church; and asked that the department investigate whether the Rev. Malm may have filed a false police report, noting that as recently as September that the rector had said no one had mentioned the dispute to him in several months.
The latter seems a particularly good point. If indeed, as recently as September, no one had brought the matter up, how could the Rev. Malm now claim that people, himself included, fear for their lives? Can someone please point me to language or specific conduct that is threatening? If the argument is merely that Eric’s family members are “blogging up a storm,” there is nothing illegal about that. The First Amendment has no limit on the amount or quantity of free speech.
Concurrently, Eric complained in writing to the diocese, which as of this writing has neither responded, nor seemingly taken any action in this matter. That’s troubling: Why would the diocese not at least offer to provide pastoral care or support? If it is serious about resolving the matter, how does silence meet that goal? It seems to me that the diocese is reverting to its old habits of ignoring things and hoping they will go away.
My take on things
Let’s assume for a minute that the Rev. Malm’s seeming assertions are correct, which is that Eric is in fact the person doing the blogging. Were that the case, Eric still would be entitled to do so, for there is no quid pro quo when it comes to shunning or other forms of abuse. Clergy who abuse their parishioners simply need to stop, and they need to be held accountable. The persons they abuse owe them nothing, and if blogging helps Eric or his family bounce back from their experiences, then that is exactly what they should do.
Second, recent events underscore the need to take church security seriously. But absent a specific threat such that a reasonable person would fear for their safety, Alexandria City police should not get involved in civil matters involving churches. Moreover, linking the threat of arrest to resolution of this conflict seems a clear effort at intimidation, as does calling Eric at non-public work numbers and showing up inside his locked condo building to leave notes.
Third, there are disturbing suggestions that the Rev. Malm himself is the source of this smear campaign. For example, in confidential correspondence dating from 2016, Malm appears to refer to Eric as “unbalanced.” There’s also evidence to suggest that the rector has shared this view with his family members and others, who appear in public fora to have referred to Eric as “sick.” Yet there is no evidence that the Rev. Malm is a mental health expert, or has consulted with one. (Indeed, it is considered unethical to attempt to diagnose a person without meeting him or her.) Even were that the case, comments such as this reflect badly on the Rev. Malm and the entire parish, and are not the way matters of this sort should be handled. Calling the police on a former parishioner is something that should not be done lightly and, if considered necessary, should have been done with the bishop as a full participant in the conversation. That’s particularly the case, when as here, the bishop was personally involved in negotiating the previous ceasefire.
Fourth, it is noteworthy that never once has the Rev. Malm reached out directly to Eric to share his concerns or work towards reconciliation. That in itself speaks volumes. Indeed, when SGT Salas was asked about this, he claimed that the Rev. Malm “fears for his safety,” yet only a few weeks earlier the bishop was trying to reach Eric by phone? If Salas’ assertion is accurate, wouldn’t the bishop have similar concerns?
Fifth, it does not appear that the parish or the Rev. Malm have ever reached out to Eric’s family or friends to apologize, to make restitution, or to otherwise fix things. Why, then, would anyone be surprised that they are still angry and upset?
Sixth, anyone who’s ever dealt with intra-family dynamics knows that they are messy, complicated things in the best of times. No one can or should blame a man who is dealing with family members at the end of life and his own serious health issues for feeling that he can only do so much.
Bottom line, to outsiders, Grace Episcopal Church looks to be a toxic church, petty, hateful, mean spirited, and lacking in personal and organizational integrity. There is no set of circumstances — ever — that justifies Christians urging others to commit suicide, engaging in shunning, or in filing questionable police reports against former parishioners.
My hope for the sake of all involved is that, even if Eric and his family can’t or don’t want to be part of the conversation, the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia will take immediate steps to take the high road, end this controversy, and offer a meaningful pastoral response to all hurt by the Rev. Malm and his actions. Clergy involved in this matter need to be held accountable, and the diocese needs to stop worrying about blogs and start worrying about people. As it stands, Eric and his family have every right to be upset with both the diocese and the parish.
As to the Alexandria police department, my take is that it got pulled in by the fact that Bob Malm is a priest, and failed to do its homework. As a result, the department looks bad and has made a difficult situation worse. A public apology certainly would not be inappropriate at this point, and the department should have clear guidelines in place as to what constitutes a “terroristic threat,” and when it will get involved in civil matters involving churches. Bloggers who criticize abusive churches should not be getting calls from the police, no matter how angry, virulent, or frequent their comments, absent specific threats to safety.
Finally, if it turns out that the Rev. Malm did file a false police report, my view is that he should be held accountable both at law and as an ecclesiastical matter. There is no excuse for using the police department for pursuing personal vendettas.