Clergy and lay leaders across The Episcopal Church are joining House of Deputies President Julia Ayala Harris in demanding reform of the church’s disciplinary process for bishops as retired Oklahoma Bishop Ed Konieczny was identified as the focus of Ayala Harris’ sexual harassment complaint.
Ayala Harris, in revealing the general details of her complaint last week, withheld the identity of the bishop who she said had “physically overpowered” her at last year’s 80th General Convention. In an Aug. 30 letter to the House of Deputies, she said she felt compelled to go public after her case had ended in a “pastoral response” rather than discipline for the bishop.
Konieczny was first identified publicly at the subject of Ayala Harris’ complaint on Sept. 5 in a story by The Living Church, citing three unnamed sources and the Diocese of Oklahoma’s chancellor, Bill Cathcart. Cathcart confirmed the allegations to media, saying he and Konieczny were barred by a “pastoral directive” from saying anything about the case.
Ayala Harris referred media to her previous response: “Out of the concern for my safety and others, as well as potential legal and privacy issues, I cannot name the respondent bishop at this time.” The Episcopal Church’s Office of Public Affairs also declined to comment on the bishop’s identity.
Later in the day, the news that Konieczny was the focus of Ayala Harris’ complaint was acknowledged by the current Oklahoma bishop, the Rt. Rev. Poulson Reed, who said he was not involved in the disciplinary process and “cannot speak to the details either of the incident or of the disciplinary procedures that came after.”
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Ayala Harris lives in Oklahoma, where she has long served the church as a lay leader and in the House of Deputies. Konieczny served as bishop of the Diocese of Oklahoma until he retired in 2021. Ayala Harris and Konieczny served together from 2015-2022 as members of Executive Council, The Episcopal Church’s governing body between meetings of General Convention.
As of midday Sept. 5, more than 240 names had been added to an open letter offering support for Ayala Harris and calling on the House of Bishops to respond to the allegations against one of its members.
Separately, a small group of female bishops from the church’s Province VIII drafted a letter to their peers asking that the issue of bishop accountability be added to the agenda of the House of Bishops’ Sept. 19-12 online meeting. As of Sept. 3, 55 bishops had signed that request, which lamented “several recent high-profile cases in which bishops were accused of improper behavior, and many in the church believe those bishops received few or no consequences.”Episcopal-Letter
“We are angered by and deeply concerned about the perception – or the reality – that bishops get a free pass on behavioral issues,” the bishops said in calling for a formal discussion of the matter. “We want to ensure that in our system, issues like these are taken seriously and treated appropriately. Bishops cannot be allowed to have a ‘free pass.’”
There are at least two investigations currently pending against Episcopal bishops under The Episcopal Church’s Title IV disciplinary canons. In the Diocese of Florida, at least one priest has called for an investigation of Florida Bishop John Howard, who is accused of a pattern and practice of discriminating against LGBTQ+ clergy and those who opposed his stated views against same-sex marriage. And in the dioceses of Eastern Michigan and Western Michigan, the Rt. Rev. Prince Singh, bishop provisional of both dioceses, welcomed a Title IV probe after his two sons made public allegations accusing their father of a history of physical, verbal and psychological abuse against them and their mother.
The church regularly re-examines its Title IV canons to consider updates. Renewed scrutiny of the bishop discipline canon was endorsed by a 2022 resolution passed by the 80th General Convention. It called for a review of the Office of Pastoral Development’s Title IV responsibilities in response to how it handled the suspension of the Rt. Rev. Whayne Hougland Jr., former bishop of the dioceses of Western Michigan and Eastern Michigan, for an extramarital affair. The two dioceses proposed the resolution after describing their experience as “severely lacking in clarity, consistency, timely communication and tracking of our process.” A report from that review and its recommendations won’t be presented until General Convention meets again in 2024.
Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, in a video message to the church released late in the day on Sept. 5 acknowledged the Province VIII bishops’ letter and agreeing that the church’s processes must ensure that no bishop gets “a free pass” when facing allegations.
“None of us want that to be the case. For the sake of the Gospel, for the sake of our integrity, and, above all, for the sake of the well-being of every child of God who is a part of this church, we cannot, we must not, and we will not sit idly by when anyone is hurt or harmed in our midst,” Curry said.
The Standing Commission on Structure, Governance, Constitution and Canons, an existing body composed of 10 laity, five clergy, and five bishops, can oversee the work of ecclesiastical discipline, he said. Curry suggested it review the church’s record on bishop discipline; listen to the concerns of lay people, clergy and bishops; and identify what has and has not worked.
This article originally appeared at Episcopal News Service.
David Paulsen is a senior reporter and editor for Episcopal News Service.