Erie-based Episcopal Diocese Continues Efforts to Prevent Sexual Abuse

By Dana Massing
Erie Times-News
January 13, 2012

The double doors at the end of the hall leading to the League Room at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. Paul used to be solid.

Now there's a window in the door on the right that looks into the parlorlike room where two couches and a love seat have been taken away.

The addition of the window and the removal of the furniture are among efforts to protect children and adults from sexual abuse in the Episcopal Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania.

The Erie-based diocese recently revised its Policy for the Protection of Children and Youth from Abuse and Policies for the Prevention of Sexual Exploitation of Adults and of Sexual Harassment of Church Workers.

"They're trying to create an environment and an awareness that makes the churches as safe as we can make it for children and for anyone with regard to matters of sexual abuse, sexual misconduct, sexual harassment," said the Rev. John Downey, dean of the cathedral.

The cathedral at 134 W. Seventh St. is the mother church of the 34-parish diocese that includes about 4,700 Episcopalians in 13 counties. Its bishop, the Right Rev. Sean Rowe, said the revised policies are the latest generation in a local effort that stems back to the 1990s.

The policies are based on an Episcopal Church model, and the newest local versions are meant to create a culture of vigilance and awareness about misconduct prevention, Rowe said.

He said such abuse is something that local Episcopalians can't ignore, and they have a better understanding than some of why such preventive efforts are important.

"With our own experience, it is very real and personal to us," Rowe said.

He had announced in 2010 that a former bishop was accused of sexually abusing young girls several decades ago.

The claims of abuse against the Rev. Donald Davis were first made public in a letter from Rowe that was read in July 2010 in the diocese's churches. Rowe revealed that Davis, who led the diocese from 1974 to 1991, had sexually abused four girls around age 10 in the 1970s and 1980s. Davis died in 2007. Rowe said he heard of the abuse in March 2010 and made it public because it was the right thing to do.

Rowe apologized to the victims and asked others to contact him. He said later that year that he'd heard from a total of nine women -- seven who were sexually abused as girls and two who were harassed and intimidated as adults. Rowe said a few more have since come forward to say they were abused by Davis as children.

Revelation of the abuse came after work had already begun on the new guidelines, Rowe said. They were adopted in 2010 and, after congregations found some things to be unclear, received a final set of revisions in 2011. Rowe said churches are to implement the policies over the course of a year.

He said changes were made in how abuse is reported, including a new anonymous option.

"There are numerous ways to report suspected abuse," he said.

The policies also are now clear about who needs background checks and clearances, the bishop said. The policies require such screening for church personnel who regularly work with or around children or youth. The screening is slightly less stringent for personnel who occasionally work around children or youth. The definition of personnel includes clergy, paid employees and volunteers.

Files with results of criminal record checks, sexual offender registry checks, reference checks, driving record checks and other information must be kept on personnel. Downey said that for the cathedral, this means expanding record-keeping beyond staff to include volunteers who regularly work with young people and even those who might only help out once a year.

"We still have to pay attention to that because a predator, they would know to zero in on something like, 'Can you use some help with the Christmas pageant?' even if they don't do anything else," he said.

Until now, the cathedral had to have information on about 10 full- and part-time employees, Downey said. Now files will have to be kept for an additional 20 to 25 people, he said.

The cathedral pays the $20 for background checks on an individual, officials said.

Parishes are expected to handle most costs related to the policies, with some help available from the diocese, Rowe said.

All personnel, including lay volunteers, also must undergo training with a diocesan certified trainer and then take a refresher course every three years. The sessions, usually on a Saturday, cover topics like how to spot and report abuse and what is and isn't appropriate behavior.

A brief hug is OK, but a lengthy embrace is not, according to diocesan policy.

Hands slapping in a high-five is appropriate, but touching a bottom isn't.

After reading over the policies, which discourage couches and love seats, cathedral officials decided to replace such furniture in the League Room with library chairs, Downey said.

"That was difficult for some people to see," he said.

They felt the church should have a formal parlor-type sitting room and didn't want it changed.

"But to be faithful to the policy and to show that we mean business we needed to do that," Downey said.

Cathedral staff also worked to ensure that 10 doors without windows had them before Christmas, he said.

Diocesan policies state that windows should be unobstructed so space is "always available to casual monitoring" and said that "a sense of privacy can be maintained by arranging the furniture so that persons who have pastoral relationships are always visible but the parishioner or visitor does not feel exposed."

Downey said people might think such measures are going too far, but that's something that can be evaluated over time.

"I would not be one to say they're too extreme and we shouldn't do them," he said.

"The most important thing of all, more important than whether we have couches or windows or anything, is doing everything we can to make ... a safe place for kids and for other people who might be vulnerable, and it's worth being extreme to go to a place where we can learn and evaluate all that."

Downey said simply making people aware that the policies exist can help prevent abuse.

"I fully believe that folks who might be perpetrators or predators, if they smoke out that this is a congregation that's paying attention to this issue, they're less likely to come around," he said.

The policies can be viewed at parishes and on the website for the Episcopal Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania.

DANA MASSING can be reached at 870-1729 or by e-mail








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