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NEW YORK, NY: Was Episcopal Church COO placed on Administrative Leave over Bugging Incident at Executive Council?

NEW YORK, NY: Was Episcopal Church COO Placed on Administrative Leave over Taping Incident at Executive Council?

By David W. Virtue DD
December 12, 2015

The Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, Michael Curry, has suspended his right hand man, COO Bishop Stacey Sauls, and placed him on administrative leave along with two other senior church officers over what is being described as "misconduct in carrying out their duties as members of senior management of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society." The other two suspended officers are Deputy Chief Operating Officer and Director of Mission Samuel McDonald, and Director of Public Engagement Alex Baumgarten.

No one will give information about the exact nature of the incident. However, VOL and IRD writer Jeff Walton believe it might have something to do with the security tapes that were found by General Convention Executive Officer and Executive Council Secretary Canon Michael Barlowe at the Conference Center at the Maritime Institute in Linthicum Heights, Maryland, where the Executive Council was meeting last month.

A tape-recording device had been concealed and was running, Barlowe told a shocked room. Council members were exhorted to look under their tables to see if anything was taped. The hidden tape recorder was found on the floor near the lead table where top church leaders had been seated throughout Executive Council. These leaders included Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and House of Deputies President Gay Jennings. No surveillance cameras thatmight have recorded someone hiding the recorder were found.

Who would possibly want to bug a church that is dying and has already passed all the hot button issues at various General Conventions? What is there left to bug, pray tell? Apparently a lot.

The incident resembles something out of an episode of Fawlty Towers, when Fawlty (John Cleese) bugged a guest's room to check how much toilet paper was being used. Curry, who is at home recovering from brain surgery, cannily put Bishop Clay Matthews, Director of the Office of Pastoral Development, in charge of "pastoral care" issues. Matthews is the PB's consigliere for bad boy bishops and knows the dirt on all the bishops. He is indispensable to his own and the Church's survival. (Matthews is presently trying to decide whether to bring presentment charges against Los Angeles Bishop J. Jon Bruno for his bullying and mishandling of a valuable church property.)

Another very suspicious incident that might have triggered the staff suspensions occurred at Executive Council.

An issue arose over resolution (FFM 019), which authorized housing allowances in particular amounts for 20 staff members, including new Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and Chief Operating Officer Stacy Sauls. Under the federal tax code, housing allowances allow clergy to pay less in taxes than if they take all their compensation as salary.

The Joint Standing Committee on Finances for Mission approved the specific housing allowance amounts and recommended that the council do the same. But when the resolution reached the floor, all the amounts were blacked out on the projection screen. They were also blacked out on versions distributed to reporters. Why?

Executive Council always professed transparency, but this is apparently not the case. "I'm puzzled that we talk so much about transparency at the beginning of the meeting, and now suddenly we're trying to hide information," said the Rev. Nathaniel Pierce of the Diocese of Easton. "I'm troubled by being asked to vote in favor of a financial document required by the IRS where all the numbers are blacked out. I'd vote against it just on principle. Don't ask me to vote on it if you're going to black out the figures."

"An individual parish isn't publicized beyond the vestry that I'm aware of," said N. Kurt Barnes, treasurer and chief financial officer. "But here, we publish everything across the church and across the country."

The debate came at the end of a four-day meeting in which a number of sessions were closed to the public and concerns about confidentiality rose to the fore.

It was soon after this that the bugging device was found.

Curry says that to protect the integrity of the process, he would not say more about the concerns "at this time." The Presiding Bishop, who took office November 1 following his election at this summer's Episcopal General Convention, told staffers that there would be a video conference on Monday, December 14.

Curry asked church staff to "refrain from speculation" in order to "ensure the integrity of a fair and just process."

One observer noted that this is potentially the biggest story since Treasurer Ellen Cooke went to prison for embezzling $2 million back in the 90s in the reign of Ed Browning.

While no further information was offered in the staff letter, there have been recent tensions between church staff and the Episcopal Church Executive Council, an elected body that convenes in the three year period between General Conventions.

Whatever it is, there is a Monty Python-esque quality to the whole thing. The inmates are bugging themselves even as the TEC ship sinks slowly into the sunset. It's not just bad morals and bad theology that is racing through the arteries of TEC. It would seem that paranoia and bad economics have moved into the arterial blood stream. One wonders if Bishop Curry is still reciting “don’t worry be happy” as he himself recovers.


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