Ethics News

Experts push Episcopal Church to explain firings

(RNS) The firing of two senior Episcopal Church administrators for unspecified reasons after a four-month misconduct investigation has prompted warnings that the church’s “cover-up” could endanger future victims.

Some legal experts and advocates are calling for more disclosure about the managerial misconduct that led to the firings of Chief Deputy Operating Officer Sam McDonald and Director of Public Engagement Alex Baumgarten.

Alex Baumgarten, the former director of public engagement and mission communications for the Episcopal Church. Photo courtesy of The Episcopal Church

Alex Baumgarten, former director of public engagement and mission communications for the Episcopal Church. Photo courtesy of the Episcopal Church

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said in a brief April 4 statement that the two “violated established workplace policies” and “failed to live up to the Church’s standards of personal conduct in their relationships with employees.” Through a spokesperson, he said the church would have no further comment on the matter.

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By saying nothing about what types of violations occurred, the church heightens the risk that wrongful behavior will be repeated elsewhere as McDonald and Baumgarten move on, according to Colby Bruno, senior legal counsel for the Victim Rights Law Center, a national nonprofit that provides free legal services from its offices in Boston and Portland, Ore. The silence also discourages other victims from coming forward and saying “this happened to me, too,” she said.

“They’re glossing over what is a big problem, but what the big problem is, obviously no one is to know,” Bruno said. “All of this cover-up might not be good for the future.”

Sam McDonald, former deputy chief operating officer of the Episcopal Church. Photo courtesy The Episcopal Church

Sam McDonald, former deputy chief operating officer of the Episcopal Church. Photo courtesy the Episcopal Church

McDonald and Baumgarten have not been charged with any crime and did not respond to requests for comment. A third administrator, Chief Operating Officer Stacy Sauls, will remain on staff but will not continue as COO. The investigation found Sauls was unaware of the misconduct and violated no policies.

From December through March, independent investigators from the New York law firm Curley, Hessinger & Johnsrud pored over thousands of pages of documents and interviewed more than 40 people, according to Curry. Workplace investigations of such scope are often looking for patterns of sexual harassment, Bruno said.

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Curry’s statement said “old patterns of behavior which are not helpful” must be changed at the church’s national headquarters in New York City, but he offered no specifics. A human resources consulting firm has been hired to do a staff culture audit and retrain all staffers to bring about “a healthier direction.”

Some observers say the church’s terse response might be necessary to honor confidentiality agreements with McDonald and Baumgarten. In such agreements, terminated employees typically promise not to sue in exchange for severance payments and an employer’s promise to never tell anyone what happened, according to Manhattan employment attorney Matthew Schatz.

“Anybody who loses a job under circumstances like this would want it to be kept quiet so that they have a chance of finding employment elsewhere in the future,” said Schatz, a partner at Schwartz & Perry.

But others say the silence could be inviting new legal as well as moral jeopardy. The church could avoid such fallout by publishing the investigators’ report with redactions to protect privacy if necessary, said David Gregory, executive director of the Center for Labor and Employment Law at St. John’s University.

“If you make certain disclosures, you might get sued, but you can defend against a lawsuit that has no merit,” Gregory said. “But if you don’t publish and somebody subsequently is assaulted by one of these persons, then you’ve got the knowledge that you didn’t do the right thing at the right time. And that could lead to complicity of a criminal nature.”

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For the 2 million-member Episcopal Church, the mysterious scandal comes at a time of heightened sensitivity about church misconduct and disclosure obligations in the wake of the Roman Catholic clergy sexual abuse crisis, in which church authorities kept silent about abusive priests for years. Bruno said the Episcopal Church is bucking a societal trend toward increased transparency.

“What we see in our culture is that people are getting more transparent about (misconduct), more victims are disclosing, more colleges are expelling and workplaces are being more vigilant,” Bruno said.

For the Episcopal Church’s governing board member and Washington, D.C., attorney Russell Randle, the church’s stance is not only legally prudent but also beneficial to whistleblowers.

“If anytime somebody makes a whistleblower complaint it’s going to be spread across the pages of your paper or others, it’s going to put a real damper on anybody coming forward with a whistleblower complaint,” he said.

Others believe the Episcopal Church has said enough for now but will need to disclose more soon. Liz Shear, a professor of nonprofit governance at the University of San Diego, said rank-and-file church members will eventually need more information in order to restore their trust.

“This isn’t the end,” Shear said. “They’ll say something about whatever the culture was: whether it was fear or permissiveness or whether you were supposed to turn a blind eye to things. … Otherwise, you’ll lose the community.”

(G. Jeffrey MacDonald is an RNS correspondent)

About the author

G. Jeffrey MacDonald

G. Jeffrey MacDonald is an award-winning reporter and an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ.


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  • There are soooooo many weasel words available when what people really want is juicy gossip. If the people involved – including any victim(s) involved – wanted further facts to be known, they would be.

    So stop digging for gossip while trying to pass it off as “concern.”

  • Amen. If there were no legal charges filed; than I don’t think it’s any of our business. Two people lost their jobs after an intense investigation. Done. Why keep rooting around in the garbage? Boredom?

  • You have it right! To label a person over an action that is okay in the rest of the world but not in a church organization is still labeling them! You are asking for something to gossip about! Leave it alone!

  • The usual causes of mis conduct are money (a past national church Treasurer was convicted of stealing church money), sex (bu the ages suggest not), or abuse of power. Absent any evidence I think tha may be part of the problem.

  • No charges, no facts, not even the usual invisible, anonymous “victim” to pity. Apparently, the Church has descended to shooting people out of a cannon with no excuse at all. I refuse to judge people or make presumptions without evidence. I hope they sue. I have lost all confidence in our new PB.

  • The fact that the Church is being so circumspect about it may be a sign that they’re trying to ward off litigation, or that there’s something already settled, or a nondisclosure agreement (as the article notes). Nevertheless, the part of the Church’s statement that the employees “failed to live up to the Church’s standards of personal conduct in their relationships with employees” makes it sound like this is at least in part about sexual harassment.

  • Who asked you to judge or presume anything? There is a personel policy. It was followed. This stuff happens every day. The difference in the Episcopal Church is that the Church is walking the “second mile” to make sure everyone directly involved is treated fairly and genuinely cared for; it’s as open as it needs to be. That’s a good thing.
    This is a far cry from the stories of sexually missbehaving Catholic priests. These individuals in question will carry this on their resume and job references from the Episcopal Church.

  • For what it’s worth. The bishops of the Episcopal Church met a few weeks before these firings were announced. (The three had been suspended in December). At least one of these bishops told a group of priests that there was a brief presentation to them on the issue. They were told that the matters being investigated were that one was being accused of “financial misconduct” another of “sexual misconduct” and the third of “creating a destructive (sic) work environment” However, it was not said which was accused of what, and the implication was that each was only being investigated in one of those areas.

  • I agree with the early comments: this is another attempt to make a news story of something that happens every day in the corporate world. I trust the PB. I have heard bad things about one of the three for years. Anything that puts out church in a bad light is popular amongst some of
    the populace – – the same ones who call the PB a heretic and counted the number of times the previous PB did not use the name of Jesus in sermons and lectures.

  • Let’s remember that “openness” has not characterized this Church lately. Financial figures were blacked out of a presentation given to the Executive Committee. A drunken bishop killed a cyclist AFTER the previous Presiding Bishop and diocesan knew that she had problems before they consecrated her. And let’s not forget that General Convention voted to start the process to move the Manhattan headquarters “815”. That was in 2012 and so far has not been heeded.

    Sorry — but there are legitimate concerns about truth-telling.

  • The Episcopal Church very much needs whistleblower protection at all levels.

    A family member of mine is a member of Grace Episcopal Church in Alexandria VA. Last summer, he complained of questionable HR, financial, and governance issues in the parish. The rector responded by removing, without authority, my family member from various roles in the parish, directing staff and church volunteers to ostracize him, and to misuse funds given in memory of family members.

    Shockingly, the Episcopal DIocese of Virginia thus far has said that the rector’s actions are not a violation of church policy. An organization that should be a model of integrity is anything but.

    Utterly appalling