Sunday, August 4, 2013

No-Snark, No-COD: On Transparency and Healing

Just about two years ago I came up with Crusty Old Dean as a kind of over-the-top, Stephen-Colbert-esque character, someone full of bombast and indignation, as a mouthpiece to address what I considered to be some important issues in the church and the world.  Crusty is absent from this post, along with snark and self-righteousness.  I'll be writing as me, in the first person, on something that has impacted my world personally.  Or, kind of like what Mr Orange said in Reservoir Dogs, this will "be like a Pam Grier TV show without Pam Grier," a COD post without COD.

First, a little backstory.

I grew up about 30 minutes south of Boston in a small town in Massachusetts.  My background was a mixture between Yankee Congregationalist and Roman Catholic immigrant.  My mother's side of the family had been in this country for hundreds of years.  There's roads and lakes named for relatives of mine in New Hampshire, and ancestors on Mom's side fought in the American Revolution (on the winning side, I should add).  That said, despite having long roots in this country, they were solidly middle class.  My mom's dad was an accountant for the railroad, and my mom's mom was a schoolteacher and later librarian and archivist for the Congregational Library at 14 Beacon Street, across from the State House.  Dad's side were working class Irish and Canadian immigrants.  My great-grandfather came from Ireland and was illiterate; the deed on the house my dad grew up in was signed with my great-grandfather's X and witnessed to be his signature.  My grandfather quit school in the 8th grade and eventually moved to the USA from Canada right
I look just like my Dad, though he had better hair.
around World War I.  He was a carpenter and spent decades working in the South Boston Naval Shipyard.  My father was the first person in his family to go to college, let alone graduate from college, which is where he met my Mom, at Boston University in the 1950s.  There's a photo of them, circa 1957 or thereabouts (Dad's fresh out of the USMC), in the BU Commons.

I rehearse all of this for a reason.  When I was 14, I went off to boarding school, to Deerfield Academy, in Deerfield, Massachusetts, about two hours from home. I didn't do it because I was the scion of some rich family, or because my parents lived a jet-setting lifestyle and couldn't be bothered with raising me (though I did have classmates like that). I attended because my parents and I thought it would be good for me.  All my brothers went to Catholic high school, and my parents thought Deerfield would provide greater academic challenge for me.  Also, being the youngest of five boys, in our own ways both my parents and I thought it might help to get out from under the burden of always being someone else -- a younger brother or my mother or father's son.  My parents were well-known in the town we grew up in; my Dad held a number of different town offices and my Mom covered the town
Me in 1988.  Couldn't find a digital high school photo.
in the regional newspaper.

So off I went at age 14 in the fall of 1983.   It was rough that first year, I won't deny it.  I probably wouldn't have made it at all it my brother Mike hadn't been going to school at the University of Massachusetts, about half an hour south in Amherst.  I was able to see him regularly, hang out with him, and in general have someone to turn to.  When I went to see him in the hospital after he'd had his mild stroke, he thanked me and said I didn't need to go to all the trouble to visit him. Yes I did, I said, because I owe you for helping me make it through that first year of Deerfield.  I was homesick and felt like a
fish out of water, most of my classmates seemed so urbane and cool (when I know looking back most of them were scared, lonely kids like me).  Yet by the end of the first year I began to feel like I finally fit in, began to come out of my shell, and in those four years learned things like self-confidence, self-reliance, and self-discipline that served me well as a freshman in college, when I didn't do half the stupid things others did who were away from home for the first time at 18, since I'd left home at 14.  I became a Deerfield boy, his statue is to the right, which stands in the main auditorium building on campus.  His nose is shiny from generations of students rubbing it for luck, before an exam or a big game.  I went back for my 25th high school reunion in the summer of 2012, and loved it.  I didn't know what it would be like to go back to the place, to see what had become of my classmates, but it turned out to be one of the highlights of that summer.  The school has gone co-educational since my time and gone through a fantastic building campaign to update and modernize the campus.

It's been a rough time for Deerfield since that summer of 2012, as it has faced a reckoning which, in retrospect, has probably been a long time coming.  In January of 2013, Deerfield posted a letter on its website and emailed it to the community, revealing that a former student had accused a long-serving and popular teacher at the school of sexually abusing him.  The school announced it had retained an independent law firm to conduct an investigation.  In March of 2013, it issued it a followup report, stating that it confirmed that incidents of sexual abuse had occurred and named two teachers as abusers, one retired and one deceased.  It removed the teachers' names from endowed scholarships, from the squash court named honor of one of them, and banned the living teacher from events on campus.  When I went for my reunion in the summer of 2012, the-soon-to-be accused teacher had led the singing of the school fight song, just as he had when we all had been students.

In July of 2013, the former student who made the initial accusation of abuse stepped forward and published a detailed, courageous, brutally honest and moving story of what had happened.  It can be found here, and I will let Whit Sheppard's words speak for themselves.

I must say I have been thinking about events at Deerfield a lot the past few months.  At times I have found this odd; after all, I myself have not been involved in these events in any particular way.  I do not know the person who has come forward personally.  At my time at Deerfield, though I had both the accused men as teachers, and met with them both privately in their apartments for extra help, I never felt in any way involved in any kind of inappropriate contact; nor do I even know of any students at the time who expressed anything like what Whit described.  I've struggled about what to write about this, whether I even should, or why anybody should even care what I think.  But I've felt my thoughts crystallizing in several areas.

1)    When I was going through the ordination process, nobody asked me any questions about sexuality.  Maybe it's because they knew me, that I was married to a priest, and I worked for the Presiding Bishop's office, or maybe they just were embarrassed to talk about it.  But anyway during one of the sessions with my parish discernment committee, I just said, "Since none of you have asked me anything about sexuality, I'd be glad to say a few words."  Flummoxed, the chair of the group kind of nodded and I said, "God created us as human beings, and part of being human is being a sexual person.  I believe God calls us to supportive and monogamous partnerships.  I think personally each of us needs to accept how God has created us -- realizing that God does not create people to engage in hurtful or exploitative relations -- and try to live lives of wholeness and fullness.  If people deny who they are, or live a lie, the results can be truly frightening."  It's a response I've given at various times, in various formats, over the years when interviewing for different positions and asked my stance on sexuality, or in teaching theology and/or ethics.  I owe a lot to Professor Margaret Farley, my seminary ethics professor, and the Revd Michael Ray, my field education supervisor, in helping me come to this understanding.

Reflecting on my time at Deerfield, I can look back and identify probably half a dozen people who were living a kind of lie, who were not seeking lives of fullness or wholeness, and not being what they were to be.  With the benefit of hindsight, these people now strike me clearly as closeted gay men, several of whom were probably alcoholics as well.  I say this with no malice, and no wish to name any names, though anyone who was a student at Deerfield in the 1970s and 1980s undoubtedly knows those I am talking about.  One single, lifelong bachelor dormitory master of mine was such a drunk we knew how to exploit that fact to our advantage.  At check-in time on a weekend, we covered for a student who wasn't back from a date with his girlfriend.  Our dorm master was sometimes too drunk to check-in us in personally, so he would stand at the end of the hallway (teachers with dormitory duty lived in apartments at the end of the dormitory hallway), have us line up outside our rooms, call out our names rather than check-in us personally, and we would shout back "here."  We covered for our friend by having one of us simply alter his voice to do our best impersonation, which worked.  Several of these lifelong bachelors working at an all boys school went out drinking together on Saturday nights.  It struck me then as pathetic, in the way 16-year-olds can be judgmental about everything and everyone; now it strikes me as profoundly sad.

It's why I said earlier perhaps this was a reckoning that was a long time in coming: when people do not live lives of honesty, accepting how God has created them and trying to live a life of wholeness and integrity, terrible things can happen.  One can be to live a life as a closeted alcoholic in an all boys' school.  Another option can be to do awful and terrible things, which happened during my time at Deerfield, before my time, have happened in the Roman Catholic Church's clergy abuse scandal, and continue to happen all around the world this very day.

2)  I am proud of the way the current administration at Deerfield has handled this matter.  Reading Whit's story in the Boston Globe should be required reading for school and church administrators on how to respond.  They took his accusation seriously; the head of the school even came and met with him personally.  They investigated even though it concerned one of the most beloved and long serving teachers, who was also an alumnus himself.  They had regular and open communication with alumni.  And they took action when they felt the facts were clear.  They named names; they removed those names from endowed scholarships.  They even named the name of a man who had died years previously, and defended these actions in words which echo in their truth:  "an additional reason for naming Mr. Hindle in our initial letter, and naming Bryce Lambert [the deceased faculty member] now, is that the practice of not being forthcoming on matters like these at many different institutions over decades has resulted in a lack of reporting by victims. A lack of disclosure of inappropriate behavior can allow individuals to maintain positions of responsibility where they are a threat to children or, as in this case, to be venerated despite their past actions."

3)  Yet as commendably as they have handled this, it is not enough.  In his account Whit claimed that he had contacted a previous headmaster in 2004, and that nothing had been forthcoming from that.  Likewise communications from the school note that other accusations had been made previously.  The Academy's own investigation stated that "they did communicate with numerous alumni and faculty who said they had experienced or were aware of incidents that–by the standards of the day and certainly by the standards prevailing today–were inappropriate and should have raised red flags."  The report also notes that previous administrations did "terminate two other faculty members for inappropriate conduct with students." They school needs to investigate past handling of reporting of incidents for a number of reasons:  to continue to provide transparency; to see if other incidents might come to light and encourage anyone victimized to come forward; and to continue to find ways to make sure things like this do not happen in the future by refining protocols for sexual abuse and harassment.

4)  I also find myself reflecting about sexual misconduct in the church, on the heels of thinking about how it has impacted my own high school.

I  continue to be troubled by the way churches handle issues of sexual misconduct and abuse; perhaps, like being at an all-male prep school in the 1980s, we continue to think it can't happen here.  Yet is does, over and over.   Just because the Episcopal Church changed its Title IV clergy misconduct process in the 1990s doesn't mean we can look sanctimoniously at the Roman Catholic Church or polygamous Mormon sects and feel that we have cleaned our own house. 

I have written twice before on this blog about my disappointment with former Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning, who covered up sexual misconduct by the former bishop of Northwestern Pennsylvania, Bishop Donald Davis.  Allegations of sexual abuse of children by Bishop Davis were made in 1993 by Bishop Robert Rowley to Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning.  Bishop Browning privately dealt with Bishop Davis, and asked him to "resign" from the House of Bishops (he was already retired, so frankly I'm still unclear what this means) and seek counseling.  Deerfield Academy has done more in demanding accountability and transparency in past instances of sexual misconduct than my own church, which lionizes and celebrates someone -- Bishop Browning -- who in my eyes covered up sexual abuse of children, and has never asked him to answer or account for actions taken not in the hazy past of different standards in 1964 but 1994.

I don't mean to single out Bishop Browning; sadly, I don't have to look far in my own circle of colleagues to single out Bishop Browning.  I have a clergy colleague resident in another diocese where the retired bishop's sexual misconduct is one of the worst kept secrets in the diocese, he is known to have had extramarital affairs, even with another former diocesan staff member.  But no action has ever been taken, other than the former bishop has been told not to show up at any diocesan events without permission.  When my colleague asked why nothing had ever been done, no formal action ever taken, the person was told "The diocese is just beginning to heal, and the last thing that is needed is to relive old wounds."  Well, actually, that's a way to insure those wounds never heal, since lies, secrecy, and abuse of power have long-term ripples in any system.

I could go on and on with tales of a church that still does not have accountability and transparency.  The church camp attendee sexually assaulted by a counselor who was told it was a "he-said, she-said" incident.  And for all those out there who want to rail against hypocritical churches and elite boarding schools and their sins of covering up -- friends, sexual harassment, misconduct, and abuse happen in all sorts of settings and environments.  When it happens in churches or schools it can seem to warrant more  media coverage, but it happens everywhere.  I have a friend who is a college professor, and the sexual harassment committed by her department chair is well known to everyone.  This person even sexually harassed me when I stopped by the departmental holiday party, squeezing my arm to "check out my muscles" when I mentioned that I had just come from working out at the YMCA.  I complained to my friend, who noted that everybody had stories to tell about him.  But, then again, my friend was a non-tenure track contract employee and this person was the tenured chair of the department, so my friend certainly didn't do anything for fear of jeopardizing a position.
Motto memorably misspelled on mug bought in 1985.

Perhaps we have come a long way since the 1970s and 1980s.  But guess what?  It's 2013.  Coming a long way is not enough.

The motto of Deerfield Academy is "Be Worthy of Your Heritage."  Hokey and very high school motto-esque, I know.  But I do feel proud and worthy of the heritage Deerfield is trying to make in responding to its past.  I pray for a church and a world that will do the same.