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Title IV committee rejects charges against two bishops

By Jan Nunley
[Episcopal News Service]  Presentment charges made in July against Bishop Suffragan Jane Holmes Dixon of Washington and Bishop Clifton Daniel III of East Carolina have been dismissed.

Members of the Title IV Review Committee, charged by Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold in late July with considering presentment charges against the two bishops in separate cases, ruled September 5 that neither bishop had committed offenses under canon law.

The committee met in New York on August 20 and 21 and September 5 to consider the charges. Bishop Catherine Waynick of Indianapolis was recused from consideration of the charges against Dixon because she signed a letter in support of Dixon, while Bishop Robert Tharp, retired of East Tennessee, recused himself from the committee during the hearing on Daniel. Griswold appointed Bishop Barry Howe of West Missouri to fill the temporary vacancy in both instances.

Time limit violation alleged

The charges against Dixon alleged that she violated canons III.17.2 and III.17.3 by exceeding a period of 30 days to object to the call of the Rev. Samuel Edwards as rector of Christ Church and St. John's Parish in Accokeek, Maryland, and refusing to send notice of his election to the diocesan convention's secretary. Stemming from those actions, Dixon was further accused of violating canons III.14.4 and III.17.1 by asking clergy to conduct worship without the consent of the rector or wardens and appointing an interim priest without receiving notification of a vacancy.

The committee identified one of the issues between the parties as a difference over whether bishops have a strictly limited 30-day window of opportunity to object to a candidate for rector, following notification of a vestry's intent to present that candidate to the parish for election. Complainants against Dixon argued that when the canons say a bishop has 30 days to 'communicate' with a vestry about a candidate, it refers specifically to such an objection. If no clear objection to a candidate is made in the first 30 days, they claimed, all subsequent objection is waived.

Dixon's attorneys countered that the term 'communication' covers more than simply objection to a candidate, and can include additional information, background checks and interviews, which may take longer than 30 days to complete. The committee noted that Dixon initiated the communication process with the St. John's vestry on January 9, several days before the expiration of the 30 day period. A scheduled January 10 interview between Dixon and Edwards, initially set by the bishop within 30 days of the vestry's first notification of Edwards' call, was postponed six weeks at Edwards' request, to February 26.

'From the Complaints and supporting documents and affidavits it is neither evident that the Bishop did not 'communicate' with the vestry nor that a valid and effective election was held following a meeting called for the purpose of considering the communication,' the ruling stated.

Interpretations both valid

The committee also rejected the argument that Dixon violated the canons in interpreting the meaning of 'duly qualified' to disqualify Edwards as a potential rector. Complainants denied Dixon the right to employ reasons beyond the validity of his ordination and standing in his own diocese (Fort Worth) to reject Edwards. Both a strictly constructed and a broader interpretation of the term 'duly qualified' are permitted under the canons and supported in commentaries and the decisions of church courts, the panel said.

'The Review Committee believes that Bishop Dixon's actions were based on a reasonable interpretation of the canons,' the report said. 'They are not contrary to definitive canonical authority.' Therefore, said the panel, 'no Offense has occurred' under the canons.

Collapse of mediation

Following notification that the Dixon presentment had failed, the wardens and vestry of St. John's issued a press release stating that mediation aimed at an out-of-court settlement in a Federal suit by Dixon against Edwards had failed.

The statement said that the vestry's attorney, Charles Nalls, was informed by diocesan chancellor JoAnn MacBeth that a negotiated settlement was not possible and that the diocesan legal team would notify a court-appointed mediator that an impasse had been reached. That would put a decision back in the hands of Federal judge Peter Messitte of the U.S. District Court for the Southern Division of Maryland, who heard arguments in the case August 23.

Remedy with courts, not presentment

The review committee also considered charges brought in September of last year against Daniel for his response to a number of complaints of clergy misconduct alleged against the Rev. William B. Trimble, Jr., rector of St. Andrew's on the Sound parish in Wilmington, North Carolina.

The complainants alleged 32 separate charges against Daniel, summarizing what they said were 109 individual allegations of misconduct in proceedings against Trimble. The allegations included charges that Daniel failed to afford Trimble the presumption of innocence, failed to provide Trimble with a consultant, placed him on 'administrative leave' without appointing such a consultant, removed him from authority over church property without due process, and issued a 'judgment' against Trimble that did not satisfy the canonical requirements for a sentence of inhibition.

The committee found that the alleged violations did not meet the canonical standard, which requires that the offense be 'intentional, material and meaningful.'

'Even taking the charges as true, there is an insufficient demonstration of intentionality, that is, a deliberate disregard of the rights of an accused,' the panel stated. 'Whether the alleged offenses might be material or meaningful may be determined in the diocesan trial process and any possible appeal.'