Communication during a Title IV Procedure
Diocesan Communicators: Best Practices
Communication during a Title IV procedure may be one of the most challenging issues in a diocese. Often, Title IV procedures can be conducted with communication restricted only to those needing prompt, transparent, pastoral, and proper communications with a minimum invasion into the wider ministry. However, in high-profile procedures that reach a public stage, virtually everyone in a diocese and often an entire community can become a part of the communication process. It is amplified by the news media, social media, through rumors, and by those without first-hand knowledge or communications training. This chapter emphasizes what happens in a congregation and community.
Title IV is designed to reach ecclesiastic conclusions that are not measured as victories and losses or all-or-nothing outcomes. However, there are those who will take sides in congregations, among the clergy of a diocese, or in communities. Improperly produced or improperly delivered communication often magnifies the polarization among those who do not know all the facts.
Sometimes, it seems diocesan officials are naively surprised that they can’t stop people who may only be indirectly involved from expressing opinions to the press, congregations, or on social media platforms. They are indirectly involved in that they are neither Complainants, Respondents, Advisors, attorneys, or Disciplinary Board officers, yet their opinions can affect the process or the wider ministry of the church. The Rev. Gay C. Jennings recommends that clerics take leadership roles in calming emotions and silencing unfounded or inflammatory rhetoric.
Other topics within this website cover the canonically required communication with those in a Title IV procedure, as well as the pastoral response afforded to those involved. That communication is highly structured and delivered through the Intake Officer, bishops, Advisors and attorneys among others. This topic covers communication with those indirectly involved during a Title IV process, and the general public. One of the first areas of need is communication with congregations or non-parochial communities where a cleric might be a Respondent or a lay person may be a Complainant.
There is a balancing act between protecting the process, protecting those directly involved in the specific procedure, and communicating with a congregation that might be impacted. The communications issue can be made more difficult if a witness, a Complainant, or the Respondent has openly discussed a matter even if he or she has been advised not to speak publically. There are also times that people start speculating about what may or may not be happening. Rosalie Ballentine, Esq. is the Chancellor of the Diocese of the Virgin Islands. She is familiar with those who speculate. She also understands confidentiality and the decision of what to say and at what time during an investigation. It comes from her experiences as the Attorney General of the Virgin Islands in addition to her chancellor duties.
An explanation of the Title IV process and of confidentiality versus secrecy is a good place to start when a Title IV case has become public. Canon Robin Hammeal-Urban of Connecticut says the diocese must understand that Title IV proceedings affect congregations in different ways. She recommends communicating to segments of the congregation. Of course, if people in the process, such as the Complainant are sharing the information, the need for communication becomes immediate.
Giving people a chance to “do something” is a way to defuse anxiety and restore calm. As our experts have agreed, communication is aimed to continue the ministry and to offer prayer. Hannah Wilder is the Communications Director of the Diocese of San Diego. She says communication can direct congregations to know they are part of the pastoral process of Title IV. That gives them a powerful role— to trust the process. Their trust is vital to the future of a ministry. This also allows the opportunity to address future rumor-mongering as a violation of that trust.
The congregation may just be the start in assessing communication needs. How communications are handled both internally in a diocese and externally to the community at large can contribute to a process that has dignity and integrity, or becomes one that can destroy reputations and ministries. Promptness and the nature of the delicate balancing act are considerations that must be made when handling media inquiries, phone calls, congregations, and ministries beyond those directly impacted. Communicators must be aware of traps. Sometimes individuals wait for turmoil to fuel their agendas against The Episcopal Church or individuals in a diocese.
Many Title IV procedures will involve congregations. A long-time congregational communicator understands the dynamics within a congregation and stresses the need for prompt communication when the procedure becomes public. Sarah Bartenstein has spent more than a decade as parish communicator for one of the largest Episcopal churches in the United States. Additionally, she served as president of the Episcopal Communicators, an international group of church communicators. She also echoes the need for consistency in message.
Experts agree messages need to be consistent in that there are no conflicting facts in any of the messages regardless of their platform. Often consistency is achieved by having one spokesperson who becomes the voice for the ministry in giving information. In today’s world of communications, assume that a message given to one person or one group is really a message given to all.
Experts further recommend that communications should be a part of any Title IV response team. The spokesperson needs to be well versed in the Title IV process and trained in crisis communication as well as in press relations. Diocesan Communicator Craig Wirth has conducted crisis communications and has also spent nearly 50 years as a TV journalist. He says the time to prepare is before one gets a call from a reporter or others seeking information. He also says be very selective about who should be the spokesperson for a diocese or other church entity. A diocese may turn to their bishop to be the spokesperson, but Canon Wirth recommends the choice be someone not directly connected to the procedure or part of the judicatory process.
If a qualified diocesan communications director is not available, it could be a valuable opportunity to partner with another diocese who has such a communication officer or other professional. Craig Wirth adds under no circumstances does planning or message consistency mean creating public relations “spin.” Wirth maintains the cornerstone of crisis communication involves honesty, accountability, humanity, and a timeline.
All of those qualities of communication are often summed up as transparency. As communication reaches the wider community involved in a Title IV procedure, there are increased pressures on the response team. This pushes boundaries and also offers unfortunate circumstances that may damage the integrity of the procedure. Communicators and others involved in message development are wise to seek advice and turn to those with experience in high profile crisis communications including Title IV cases.
In addition to her service as a parish communicator, Sarah Bartenstein has been a diocesan communicator, and a media professional. As a past president of the Episcopal Communicators, she has also been a mentor and advisor to others involved in crisis communication.
Prior planning, the response team, and transparency are also important as a diocese decides (often on a case-by-case basis) how much to disclose (or not disclose) about an incident. Title IV Canons do not carry legal status in the secular world. Thus, the discussion about disclosure and non-disclosure becomes difficult as arguments are made for transparency in a Title IV procedure, especially in cases where other individuals could be in danger. If a Title IV claim suggests that facts within the complaint are true and that a cleric has committed an offense which is perhaps a felony in the secular world, the response team should include legal representation to advise communicators about disclosure. Communicators must avoid statements that could be libelous or slanderous if a cleric has not been charged by a secular court.
Communicator Hannah Wilder also reminds dioceses to remember that communication needs to be people-driven. Communication strategy involves formulating messages that reflect the church’s need and desire to care for its people and support its people. A good plan starts with the principles of Title IV.1.
By virtue of Baptism, all members of the Church are called to holiness of life and accountability to one another. The Church and each Diocese shall support their members in their life in Christ and seek to resolve conflicts by promoting healing, repentance, forgiveness, restitution, justice, amendment of life and reconciliation among all involved or affected. This Title applies to Members of the Clergy, who have by their vows at ordination accepted additional responsibilities and accountabilities for doctrine, discipline, worship and obedience.
In related categories, the issues of media and best practices for the diocesan communicator are discussed.
Chancellor Rosalie Ballentine sums up the generic chapter on communications during a Title IV procedure by restating the goals of consistency, not impairing the process, and knowing who will say what and when.