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Montana bishop brought to trial on sexual abuse charges: The Church of England Newspaper, Nov 22, 2000. November 22, 2000

Posted by geoconger in Church of England Newspaper, Ecclesiastical Trials, Montana.

In the first trial of its kind since the Nineteenth century, nine bishops heard oral argument on November 20th in Minneapolis, Minnesota in the trial of the Rt. Rev. Charles I. Jones, III, Bishop of Montana for “sexual exploitation”.  Accused of conduct unbecoming of a clergyman, Bishop Jones risks being deposed from office and defrocked for having had an adulterous affair with a parishioner almost twenty years ago.

In a preliminary ruling filed on August 28th, the Ecclesiastical Trial Court held that “there is no genuine issue of fact concerning the charge that [Bishop Jones] engaged in conduct that constitutes conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy and immorality under…the Canons.  Specifically, there is no genuine issue of material fact on the question whether the conduct of [Bishop Jones] constitutes sexual exploitation.”  The Court further added that “even if there is a factual dispute concerning whether [Bishop Jones]’s sexual relationship with the [female parishioner] was consensual, that factual dispute is…immaterial.  The sexual nature of the relationship, which is undisputed, was exploitive under the circumstances and constitutes both immorality and conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy.”

The Court instead heard argument on Monday on the issue of “double jeopardy”.  The Rt. Rev. Edward Jones, retired Bishop of Indianapolis, stated that Bishop Jones’ guilt or innocence would not be considered.  What was at issue was whether Jones was still to be punished, or whether the  “pastoral discipline” imposed by Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning in 1993 was punishment enough.

In 1993 Bishop Jones admitted his affair to the then Presiding Bishop, Edmond Browning, offered financial restitution to his former parishioner, underwent psychiatric counseling, and took a three month leave of absence from his post as Bishop of Montana.  No allegations of sexual misconduct have been leveled against Bishop Jones in the intervening seventeen years since the conclusion of the affair.

Attorneys for the Church argue that Jones’ contrition and the pastoral discipline that he undertook with Bishop Browning constituted therapy and not punishment.  They argue that Jones should be punished now.  “Pastoral discipline” is not the same as legal punishment they stated.

Jones’ attorney’s hotly denied the validity of the Court’s August ruling and questioned the legality and fairness of the proceedings.  Edward Curry, Jones’ lead attorney, argued that the charges of sexual immorality were unproven.  Many of the witnesses against Jones, including his accuser, refused to answer questions from Jones’ attorneys.  Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, refused Jones’ requests to answer questions and turn over documents Jones’ attorneys argued would clarify the issues.  Curry also alleged that the Rt. Rev. Harold Hopkins, former director of Pastoral Development, and David Booth Beers, Church Chancellor, made “deliberate deceptions…and falsehoods about material facts” in the proceedings.

Trial observers have also questioned other issues in this highly unusual proceeding.  Not only has Jones not been allowed to challenge his accuser, critics argue, the presentment against him seems designed more to embarrass Bishop Jones with its graphic sexual detail than to establish whether a sexual relationship took place.

The presentment against Bishop Jones details acts of masturbation, oral sex, coerced sexual relations, “phone sex”, and threats and intimidation by the then Reverend Jones.  One paragraph from the presentment states that Mrs. XXX and “Reverend Jones had sex in his pool four or five times, including when her children were present.  Reverend Jones and [Mrs. XXX] also had intercourse on his farm.”

Bishop Jones denies these charges.  He also argued that the affair was consensual.  Bishop Jones and Mrs. XXX are remained married to their spouses following the conclusion of the affair.

Other critics argue that punishing Bishop Jones for the affair in an Ecclesiastical Court, after he had made an act of contrition and underwent pastoral discipline with the Presiding Bishop would send a dangerous message to the clergy.  Rather than confess their indiscretions and seek forgiveness or counseling, a priest would be foolhardy to make any statement in a pastoral setting that might later be used against him in an ecclesiastical tribunal.  The threat of legal jeopardy would have a chilling effect on the pastoral and sacramental relationship of a priest to his superior.

A further wrinkle to this case is that between 1996 and 1998, the Church altered its Canons to drop any statute of limitations against cases of sexual immorality.  Prior to 1996 Jones could not have been legally disciplined for his affair as thirteen years had at that time passed since his offence.

The crime of “sexual exploitation” is not defined by the Canons of the Church.  The American Church’s insurance carrier defines sexual exploitation as “the development or the attempt to develop a sexual relationship between a cleric, employee or volunteer and a person with whom he or she has a pastoral relationship, whether or not there is apparent consent.”  Critics argue that Jones is being held accountable not to Canon law but to insurance underwriting criteria.

Jones’ attorney, in Court documents filed in 1999 argued that “the Church’s purpose in pillorying Bishop Jones is to ‘send a message’…that the Episcopal Church is somehow politically correct…and will make an example of one of its own to prove it.”

A decision is expected from the Trial Court by year’s end.

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