Special congregational meeting summary – 01/18/2016

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Background

On January 18, 2016, members of Grace Episcopal Church were invited to attend a meeting with The Rt. Rev. Whayne Hougland Jr., Bishop of the Diocese of Western Michigan. The meeting was held to review instances of sexual harassment by The Rev. Bry Dennison during Rev. Dennison’s tenure as interim rector of Grace Church in 2008 and 2009. Rev. Dennison’s actions were reported in 2009 to Bishop Robert Gepert, Bishop of the Diocese of Western Michigan, and to Bishop Wendell Gibbs of the Diocese of Michigan, to which Rev. Dennison reported. In November 2009, following a lengthy investigation, Bishop Gibbs ordered Rev. Dennison to submit to a complete psychological profile, followed by three years of psychoanalysis. He was directed to compose letters of apology to the victims, and to refrain from further contact with any member of Grace Episcopal Church.

In July 2010, Bishop Gibbs sanctioned Rev. Dennison by suspending him from the priesthood for five years. During this time he was directed to refrain from the exercise of the gifts of ministry, preaching, and functioning liturgically or pastorally. In July 2016, Bishop Gibbs restored Rev. Dennison as a priest in good standing within the Diocese of Michigan. As of this date Rev. Dennison continues to be prohibited from practicing within the Diocese of Western Michigan.

Although sanctions were imposed on Rev. Dennison, his actions were not disclosed to the Grace congregation until late in 2015, when the current Grace vestry was made aware of them. Nor was counseling offered to the three known victims of Rev. Dennison’s sexual harassment. Counseling was subsequently offered and the congregation made aware of the situation through a January 6, 2016, letter from Senior Warden Donna Olendorf and Junior Warden Jeff Tibbits. The January 18th meeting with the congregation was held to gather and pray, review facts, hear input, and discuss steps for moving forward.

January 18 Meeting

Bishop Hougland opened the meeting at 7 p.m. with a period of silence and prayer. He introduced five members of a pastoral response team gathered from within the diocese to help the congregation process toward healing. The Bishop said he intended to stress three values:

  • Ongoing counseling will be made available to the victims
  • Openness and honesty about what happened so that we can be open to healing
  • Realization that we are all to a degree broken, fragile and vulnerable and always in need of redemption and healing.

Bishop Hougland then reviewed the facts as he knows them, acknowledging that there may be questions for which he has no answers. He was not the Bishop of the Diocese of Western Michigan when the actions took place. Bishop Hougland reviewed the following facts:

  • Bry Dennison served as interim rector of Grace Church from late 2007 through 2008.
  • In early 2009, diocesan Canon William Spaid received a phone call from Grace Church reporting allegations of sexual harassment by Rev. Dennison.
  • In April 2009, Bishop Wendell Gibbs of the Diocese of Michigan asked the Diocese of Western Michigan to investigate the charges. Rev. Dennison was licensed in the Diocese of Michigan, which serves the Detroit metropolitan area. He was not licensed in the Diocese of Western Michigan.
  • In August 2009, the Diocese of Western Michigan submitted a report to Bishop Gibbs.
  • In November 2009, Bishop Gibbs directed Rev. Dennison to undergo a psychological evaluation and to submit to counseling.
  • In July 2010, Bishop Gibbs suspended Rev. Dennison for a minimum of five years. Copies of his sanction letter were sent to the Presiding Bishop, The Secretaries of the House of Bishops and House of Deputies, and Bishops of the Episcopal Church, among others.
  • Bishop Hougland acknowledged that the Vestry of Grace Church was advised to keep quiet about the accusations of sexual harassment to protect the victims, but said he could find no record of that action.
  • In July 2015, following his five-year suspension, Rev. Dennison was restored as a priest in good standing in the Diocese of Michigan. When this action became known, it opened up old wounds among the victims of his sexual harassment.
  • In early December 2015, Canon Spaid met with the two known victims and asked them to write to the current vestry about their experience. From there it was determined that actions should be taken, including offering counseling to the victims, however belatedly, and to disclose these incidents to the congregation-at-large.
  • Although Rev. Dennison has been restored as a priest in good standing within the Diocese of Michigan, he continues to be barred from serving in any pastoral capacity – interim or long-term – in the Diocese of Western Michigan and can attend only one church within the diocese.

Bishop Hougland then responded to questions from parishioners that had been submitted through the vestry.

  • Was Rev. Dennison offered counseling? Yes. Bishop Hougland assumes it was paid for by the Diocese of Michigan but doesn’t know for a fact.
  • Why was no counseling initially offered to the victims? Bishop Hougland said he didn’t know.
  • Will the diocese pay for the full cost of counseling to the victims? Bishop Hoagland said an amount had not been determined. He said he believed six to 10 weeks was a good place to start and they will go from there.
  • What is the church doing to minimize risks of this nature?  The Diocese of Western Michigan requires all staff and those in ministry capacity to take two online courses – Safeguarding God’s Children and Safeguarding God’s People.
  • Why weren’t stricter sanctions imposed? The church responded under the church canons as they existed in that period. Bishop Hougland said the canons were significantly amended in 2011, including those dealing with pastoral misconduct. He said he was not familiar with specifics of the new canons other than that they have been significantly strengthened.
  • Why was there no notice of past misconduct? Bishop Hoagland said he didn’t know. There is a protocol for background checks for licensed priests within the Diocese of Western Michigan and Rev. Dennison passed that background check.
  • Why was there a lack of transparency in this situation? Bishop Hougland said he didn’t know the answer to that question, but since the issue has resurfaced, transparency has been an important part of the church’s response.

At this point in the meeting a member of the congregation who was a vestry member in 2010 said he could say exactly what happened. He said that in 2010 the vestry was ordered by both bishops Gibbs and Gepert to remain silent, adding that “We did exactly what the bishops told us to do.”

The meeting continued with questions and statements from the 90-100 parishioners who attended the meeting. The following is a sampling:

  • What is currently being done for the victims? Bishop Hougland said he is aware that at least one victim has begun counseling, adding that a list of counselors who specialize in this area has been given to the victims and they are free to choose from among them.
  • A parishioner commented that the incident shows a lack of institutional accountability and follow-through. She said there is a need for institutional review and policy changes in how pastoral misconduct is addressed.
  • A parishioner observed that there is an imbalance between three years of counseling and what is being offered to the victims.
  • Does the church have a registry for sexual predators? No. Background checks are made but there is no registry.
  • A parishioner who has been a member of Grace Church since 1942 observed that she has always been proud of Grace Church, but isn’t proud now. Through changes in clergy, vestries and three bishops there has been no church-wide communication of this issue until now.
  • Several parishioners expressed frustration that a permanent ban from the priesthood was not imposed.
  • A parishioner observed that, while Grace has done a great job of outreach to the community, it has fallen short in pastoral care for its own people.
  • A parishioner expressed concern for church office staff who may be bearing the brunt of anger and frustration of members of the congregation.

Moving Forward

A member of the congregation expressed the following: “I wasn’t here when these transgressions took place. But I have come to know and love the people of this church. My prayer is that we can come together, heal, and look to the future so that we can arrive at the place we need to be.”

Support for the following came from those at the meeting:

  • Create a way for other victims, who may be suffering in silence, to come forward in a safe and confidential way.
  • Conduct a healing service to tend to the needs of those who are suffering and in need of God’s healing grace.
  • Arrange a Lenten program focused on healing.
  • Continue to accept and research answers to questions people have.
  • Regularly communicate timely information to the congregation in a number of formats.
  • Ask Rev. Dennison to write a letter of apology to Grace Church.

Appreciation was expressed to Bishop Hougland and his parish response team for attending the meeting. The meeting concluded at 9 p.m.

Respectfully submitted,
John D. Strickler, Clerk

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