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Man sues Arizona diocese, alleging negligent handling of 1970s sex abuse by priest

Wed, 07/24/2019 - 4:37pm

[Episcopal News Service] A man who says he was sexually abused by a priest in the early 1970s is suing the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona and the Tucson parish where the abuse allegedly occurred, claiming his reports of repeated molestation were ignored at the time. It may be the first lawsuit to take advantage of a new Arizona law that extends the statute of limitations for cases of child sexual abuse. The diocese, though not disputing that the abuse took place, denies his accusations of a cover-up and says the matter was handled appropriately at the time.

According to the lawsuit, Charles Taylor was sexually abused for several years around age 12 by the Rev. Richard Babcock, a priest at Grace Church (now Grace St. Paul’s Church), in the church and in Babcock’s home. Taylor says he told the rector about the abuse at the time, but the rector failed to stop it, and Babcock continued to abuse him and other children. The lawsuit, filed on July 12, also claims that the diocese knew that Babcock was abusing children and covered it up by “reassigning him to other churches.” The complaint consists of two counts each – negligence and breach of fiduciary duty – against the diocese and Grace St. Paul’s. Babcock, now deceased, admitted to having abused children in a sworn affidavit before his death, according to the law firm representing Taylor.

Taylor had tried to sue Grace St. Paul’s and the diocese in 1991 but was unable to do so because the statute of limitations had expired, his law firm says. But in May, a new state law went into effect, allowing victims of child sexual abuse to file lawsuits up until their 30th birthday. It also allows anyone to file a suit until Dec. 31, 2020, no matter how long ago the alleged abuse occurred.

The Episcopal Church has extended its own internal statute of limitations for reporting clergy sexual misconduct against an adult in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Resolution D034, passed at the 2018 General Convention, suspends the time limit for reporting those cases, effective from Jan. 1, 2019, through Dec. 31, 2021. The church has no time limit for reporting a case of sexual abuse against a person under age 21.

In a July 18 letter to the Grace St. Paul’s community, the Rt. Rev. Jennifer Reddall, bishop of Arizona, said the diocese takes every allegation of misconduct seriously, no matter how old, and is reviewing Taylor’s complaint.

“He and his claims have been known to us for many years,” Reddall wrote, “but despite repeated legal action, we have never been able to come to satisfactory resolution.”

The diocese first learned of Taylor’s allegations in 1991, Reddall told Episcopal News Service, and there is no record of him reporting any abuse before then. The diocese had no reports of misconduct by Babcock until 1979, when two boys from another Tucson church who had encountered Babcock through choir said he had molested them. Babcock had left Grace in 1978 and became the vicar of St. David’s in Page, Arizona, in 1979. According to Reddall, “everything indicates that there was a perfectly normal transition process.”

“The move was not initiated by the diocese, and there’s nothing to indicate that it was inspired by any misbehavior or cover-up on his part,” Reddall said.

That same year, the two other boys came forward, saying Babcock had abused them.

“Within days of receiving that report, he was inhibited, and after an investigation a couple months later, he was given the choice of renouncing his orders or going to an ecclesiastical trial, and he chose to renounce his orders,” Reddall said.

“To the best of our knowledge, the diocese handled it in 1979 appropriately for 1979. One question we still have is we don’t know if it was reported to the police or not at that time. There’s one letter that indicates that someone was going to report it to the police, but we don’t have anything in the file on that. So it’s possible it was reported and not followed up on, and it’s also possible that it wasn’t reported. But the priest was removed immediately and never regained his orders.”

Reddall says she can’t be sure whether Taylor’s allegations against Babcock are true.

“We don’t know whether he was abused by Richard Babcock or not, but we do know that Richard Babcock admitted to abusing some other boys, and what we now know about child abuse would imply that those were not the only two boys that Richard Babcock had ever abused,” Reddall said.

The diocese obtained a restraining order preventing Taylor from visiting or contacting Episcopal churches because, Reddall said, he had threatened then-Bishop Kirk Smith, other clergy, and himself.

“He was threatening that he was going to harm himself in a church in front of children. And so we felt that in order to keep our people safe, we needed to seek the injunction against him,” Reddall said.

In an interview with Tucson news station KOLD, Taylor acknowledged those incidents and said he was trying to confront the church about inaction on child sexual abuse.

“We absolutely believe that churches need to be safe places, and I believe our churches are, and that’s why we’ve been putting all the policies and procedures in place over the last 30 years that we have,” Reddall said.

– Egan Millard is an assistant editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at emillard@episcopalchurch.org.

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Episcopal leaders in Hawaii pledge support for mountain ‘protectors’ against telescope project

Wed, 07/24/2019 - 2:53pm

[Episcopal News Service] The bishop of the Diocese of Hawaii and Native Hawaiian clergy have spoken out in support of a demonstration that is blocking a proposed telescope project on the top of the state’s highest mountain, a site considered sacred in Hawaiian culture.

The diocese on July 22 released a statement on the issue from two Native Hawaiian clergy members accompanied by a letter from Bishop Robert Fitzpatrick aligning the diocese with those who have positioned themselves as “protectors” of the mountain, Mauna Kea, in halting progress on the telescope.

“We, the Episcopal Church in Hawai’i, stand in service to Mauna Kea as a sacred place, and in solidarity with those who are protecting her,” the Revs. Jasmine Hanakaulani o Kamamalu Bostock and Paul Nahoa Lucas said in their written statement.

The protests on Hawaii’s Big Island “have brought attention to the alienation of the indigenous people of these islands, the kanaka maoli, from their own land,” Fitzpatrick said. “As Episcopalians, we must not be afraid to speak honestly together about past wrongs and the current injustices. We must talk and, more importantly, deeply listen and act.”

Drawing comparisons to the Native American demonstrators who in 2016 tried to stop an oil pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota, Native Hawaiians and activists have been camped since last week at the foot of Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano, blocking an access road in opposition to the Thirty Meter Telescope.

The $1.4 billion project has cleared various regulatory hurdles and was backed by a ruling of the state Supreme Court. While legal battles continue, protests have remained peaceful, though 34 participants were arrested, cited and released last week, according to the Honolulu Star Advertiser.

The Maunakea Observatories are seen from above the peak on Hawaii’s Big Island. Photo: NOAA.

About a dozen telescopes already are positioned at the top of Mauna Kea’s 14,000-foot peak, a treasured location for those studying the cosmos because of the site’s natural advantages, including clear air and reduced light pollution. Some Hawaiians favor the project as a boost for the local workforce and economy, though the Native Hawaiian demonstrators and other opponents argue that scientific development of the site has gone far enough.

“This is not an issue of being anti-science, as Hawaiian people have a long and proud history of technological advancement,” said Bostock, curate at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Honolulu, and Lucas, vicar at St. John’s-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in Kaneohe. “This conflict centers on efforts to respect Mauna Kea as a sacred space – as ‘wao akua,’ realm of the gods.”

Their statement compares Mauna Kea to sacred sites in the Judeo-Christian tradition, such as Mount Horeb, Mount Carmel and Mount Zion.

“Sacredness is not merely a concept or a label,” they said. “It is a lived experience of oneness and connectedness with the natural and spiritual worlds. Nature is not inert, but a place where our creator is known and honored. Mauna Kea is such a holy place for the Hawaiian people and many others.”

The modern Episcopal Church has been supportive of indigenous people’s quest for self-determination and preservation of indigenous culture and spirituality. That contrasts with the church’s historic complicity in oppressive colonial and federal systems. In the 1800s, Episcopal missionaries ministered to American Indian tribes, but conversion to Christianity typically required leaving Native spirituality behind.

Native Hawaiians’ struggles against American colonialism began more recently. The Hawaiian monarchy was overthrown in 1893 by a group backed by American business interests, and Hawaii would become the 50th state in 1959.

A 1997 General Convention resolution specifically called on the church to “take such steps as necessary to fully recognize and welcome Native Peoples into congregational life.” And in 2009, General Convention repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery, rooted in a 1493 document that purported to give Christian explorers the right to claim lands they “discovered” and convert the people they encountered.

Bostock and Lucas affirmed in their statement that the Doctrine of Discovery has long been discredited, and they offered prayers “that the dignity of all people will be upheld, and the sacredness of Mauna Kea will be honored and protected.”

Fitzpatrick said he concurred with the statement and offered a teaching on the issue.

“Our faith does not promise freedom from conflict or from disagreement. We are called to seek together peace with justice in the Beloved Community,” he said. “Such conversations will take time – even years. It will certainly call for patience and honesty. Our conversation must deepen now.”

In the short term, he recommended a “moratorium on all moves to begin construction” of the telescope.

“I acknowledge that the livelihoods of some will be impacted and the hopes of others overturned by such a move,” Fitzpatrick said. “I am saddened by that reality and it certainly must be part of our conversations, but we must continue together.”

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.

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