Michael Curry cleans house in New York: guest essay

Did the discovery of a tape recorder secreted under the desk of the Presiding Bishop and President of the House of Deputies at last month’s meeting of the executive council in Maryland lead to a purge at 815?

Cui bono? To whose profit is it that Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has suspended the Episcopal Church’s top three administrators?

In a letter issued on 11 Dec 2015 from his hospital bed in Richmond the Presiding Bishop told the Church Center staff that he had placed the Rt. Rev. Stacy Sauls, the Episcopal Church’s Chief Operating Officer, Mr. Samuel McDonald, the Deputy Chief Operating Officer, and Mr. Alex Baumgarten, the Director of Engagement, on “administrative leave”.

Bishop Curry stated he had taken this action in response to “possible misconduct in carrying out their duties as members of senior management” of the Episcopal Church. He went on to say that the suspension was not a declaration of guilt of the accused, but was necessary to enable an investigation into the “issues”.

The presiding bishop’s letter declined to offer details of the alleged misconduct, and noted that no further information on the charges would be provided.

What do we know?

Nothing. Save for Bishop Curry and his immediate staff, the complainants — and perhaps the accused — no one has the full story. Bishop Curry has urged Episcopalians to refrain from speculation on the nature of the charges while the “independent investigator” carries out his task, but the manner in which this news was disclosed, and the form of the investigation — coupled with the recent history of the church — does limit the universe of outcomes.

Lingering concerns that Michael Curry is an empty suit — a populist preacher and all round nice guy (but who is also a puppet manipulated by his staff)  — now have been put to rest. Whatever the outcome of the investigation, Michael Curry is firmly in charge at 815.

What may have happened? Is this a second Ellen Cooke affair? In 1987 Ellen Cooke was appointed treasurer of the Episcopal Church and also served as one of Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning’s key aides. Tasked with cutting costs at the national church offices, she took a hatchet to the staff and chopped it down from 200 to 149. However the savings in manpower were offset by her greed.

Three years after taking over the job, Ellen Cooke began to steal. From 2000 to 2004 she stole $2.2 million from the church — transferring $1.5 million from church accounts to her personal accounts, charging $325,000 of personal expenses on church credit cards, writing over $250,000 in checks drawn from church accounts for her own use — including her children’s school fees, and almost $90,000 paid to her husband’s parish in New Jersey. At the end of 2004 she left her post as treasurer — not because she had been caught stealing, but because of her rude and abrasive managerial style had led to a near mutiny from the church center staff.

After submitting a request for $86,000 in back pay after she left office, a review by church officials discovered the thefts. After trial in 2005 she was sentenced to five years imprisonment.

Are there any parallels to today’s announcement and the Cooke affair? It is next to impossible that theft lies behind the suspensions. Cooke controlled both sides of the ledger — she oversaw income and disbursements and was her own auditor. The current financial controls at 815 makes theft on the Cooke scale impossible.

There is no evidence of police involvement, making any sort of criminal activity unlikely.

And, no ecclesiastical proceedings appear to have been instituted against Bishop Sauls. If he had engaged in misconduct or any other improper behavior covered by church law, he would be subject to the church’s disciplinary canons. Bishop Curry’s letter states the cause for suspension was “misconduct in carrying out their duties”. This is not criminal behavior nor even incompetence. It suggests actions taken in official capacities that were disloyal or disobedient.

While Cooke made life difficult by being an ogress, the current round of dissention among the staff at the church center has arisen from a leadership vacuum — there has not been a single undisputed leader at 815 Second Avenue for many years. Competing claims to authority by the Presiding Bishop’s Office, the President of the House of Deputies’ Office, the Executive Council and the General Convention has led to a fearful and risk averse atmosphere at church headquarters.

The conduct and character of debates such as moving the national church offices out of New York or staff compensation and responsibilities have fueled distrust between the competing power blocks. This has not been helped by a culture that views information as a commodity not to be shared with those outside the power circles.

Into this maelstrom steps a new presiding bishop — one whose reputation is that of a pastor and preacher — not a hands on administrator. At his first Executive Council meeting last month, the new Presiding Bishop witnessed the clash between the competing power blocks.

In its report of the proceedings, the Living Church noted the 15 November 2015 meeting opened with a push by Sally Johnson, chancellor to the House of Deputies President Gay Jennings, against usurpation of authority by the church center staff. Ms. Johnson stated the church canons call upon the Executive Council to set the salaries and responsibilities of church center staff. Bishop Sauls disagreed, saying this authority had been reserved to the staff and his office was responsible for managing the budget at 815 and presenting its accounting to the Executive Council.

On the second day of the meeting, a hidden tape recorder was found in the council meeting room, secreted under the desk of the presiding bishop and president of the house of deputies. The discussion scheduled for the closed door meeting was on Haiti and staff salaries. A spokesman for the national church said this was the first time of which she was aware that there had been an attempt to bug meetings closed to staff and reporters. There has been no suggestion by the national church that today’s announcement is tied to the eavesdropping incident.  

Today’s announcement of the suspensions was a surprise — but was not unexpected. There was going to be an explosion. Observers of the Episcopal Church know why, but did not know who, what, where or when.

In a time of scarce resources, new leaders, and entrenched interests, the status quo was unlikely to hold. We cannot know what happened, but we can ask ourselves who benefits? Michael Curry benefits — and ultimately the Episcopal Church benefits through achieving unity at the top and clarity of mission.

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