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Row blows up over sexual-harassment complaint in US Episcopal Church

06 September 2023

Scott Gunn/ENS

Then House of Deputies President-elect, Julia Ayala Harris addresses the US Episcopal Church’s General Convention in July 2022

Then House of Deputies President-elect, Julia Ayala Harris addresses the US Episcopal Church’s General Convention in July 2022

THE former Bishop of Oklahoma, the Rt Revd Ed Konieczny, has been named by The Living Church as the subject of a sexual-harassment complaint made by the House of Deputies’ President, Julia Ayala Harris.

Ms Harris told the Episcopal News Service on Tuesday, however, that she was unable to confirm the identity of the bishop about whom she had complained, in part owing to personal “safety” concerns, and potential legal and privacy issues.

In a letter to the House of Deputies, dated 30 August, she had announced that a retired bishop had made “unwanted and non-consensual physical contact” with her and “inappropriate verbal statements” immediately after her election at the 80th General Convention in July 2022. She later told The Living Church’s website that this contact was of a sexual nature.

Ms Harris, aged 42, was the youngest person and the first Latina to be elected President of the House of Deputies. She wrote in the letter: “I was physically overpowered and lost bodily autonomy by a retired bishop waiting for my arrival to greet our colleagues in the House of Bishops.”

On Tuesday, The Living Church identified Bishop Konieczny as the subject of the complaint, citing three unnamed “persons with specific knowledge of the matter”.

When asked to confirm this, Ms Harris referred ENS 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 Office of Public Affairs had also declined to confirm the identity of the bishop, ENS reports; but in a letter to his diocese on Tuesday, the present Bishop of Oklahoma, the Rt Revd Poulson Reed, acknowledges the allegations and says that Ayala Harris and her family were in his prayers, “as is Bishop Konieczny and his family”.

Diocese of OklahomaThe Bishop of Oklahoma, the Rt Revd Ed Konieczny, who served from 2007 to 2021

Ms Harris lives in Oklahoma, where she has served the Church as a lay leader for many years, and latterly in the House of Deputies. Bishop Konieczny, who is a former police officer, retired as diocesan bishop in 2021.

More than 200 people have added their signatures to an open letter in support of Ms Harris, which calls on the House of Bishops to respond to the allegations.

Separately, a small group of female Province VIII bishops drafted a letter asking that the issue of the accountability of bishops be added to the agenda of the next meeting of the House of Bishops later this month. The letter, which has since been signed by at least 55 bishops, regretted that “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.

“We are angered by and deeply concerned about the perception — or the reality — that bishops get a free pass on behavioral issues.”

This letter has been acknowledged by the Presiding Bishop, the Most Revd Michael Curry. In a video message on Tuesday, he said that church investigations and disciplinary processes should ensure that no bishop received “a free pass” when facing allegations.

In her letter of 30 August, Ms Harris wrote that she had aired her complaint because she was dissatisfied with the outcome of the year-long Title IV disciplinary process for the case. “Despite all the evidence, including three eyewitnesses to the incident, the church attorney assigned to this matter has chosen to refer it for a pastoral response instead of discipline,” she wrote. This, she said, was “an obvious abuse of discretion by the church attorney”.

The accused bishop’s ministry was restricted, and he was removed from certain governing bodies while the complaint was reviewed, she wrote. Ms Harris has since said that she would be pushing for a new review when the Church’s next General Convention gathers in June 2024.

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