House of Deputies president shares alleged incident of unwanted physical contact following conclusion of Title IV investigation

By Shireen Korkzan
Posted Aug 31, 2023

Julia Ayala Harris, president of the House of Deputies. Photo source: Julia Ayala Harris

Editor’s note: This story was updated to include a statement from the presiding bishop. 

[Episcopal News Service] House of Deputies President Julia Ayala Harris released a letter to deputies Aug. 30 saying she was the complainant in a Title IV case under the purview of the Disciplinary Board for Bishops over the last year.

In the letter, Ayala Harris alleges that On July 9, 2022, shortly after she was elected president of the House of Deputies, a retired bishop “physically overpowered” her and made “inappropriate verbal statements.” Ayala Harris said she submitted a Title IV complaint through her chancellor to the intake officer in The Episcopal Church’s Office of Pastoral Development. Another bishop who witnessed the alleged incident filed a separate report with the intake officer; three total unnamed eyewitnesses were mentioned in the Title IV investigation. The incident happened, she said, while she was waiting to be introduced to the House of Bishops.

“Going through the Title IV process this past year was not something I would want anyone to have to endure,” Ayala Harris said in the letter. “Yet, living through that experience has given me an important perspective that I can apply in my leadership role, and it has renewed my long-lasting commitment to increased safety in our communities.”

The unnamed retired bishop was removed from serving on certain governance bodies and placed on restrictive ministry during the Title IV process. Ayala Harris declined to name the bishop, telling Episcopal News Service: “I do not feel safe sharing the identity of the respondent bishop at this time.”

Ayala Harris is one of two presiding officers, the other being Presiding Bishop Michael Curry. In her role as House of Deputies president, she also serves as vice chair of Executive Council and as vice president of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, the church’s corporate entity.

“While I recused myself from this ecclesiastical discipline [Title IV] matter and therefore had no ultimate decision-making role, I want to acknowledge the larger concerns about our mechanisms for accountability and the need to live more fully and effectively into the values of Title IV. By its terms, Title IV aims to promote ‘healing, repentance, forgiveness, restitution, justice, amendment of life, and reconciliation among all involved or affected,’” Curry said in an Aug. 31 statement to ENS.

“In recent years, Executive Council and General Convention have devoted a great deal of time and care to this issue. In 2022, we as a church affirmed the need to separate the functions of the Office of Pastoral Development. Toward that end, our new Title IV intake officer for bishops began her role earlier this month,” he added. 

Title IV canons apply to all clergy. When they are cited in a complaint against a bishop, the initial complaint historically has been received by the Office of Pastoral Development, which reports to the presiding bishop.

“My motivation for sharing this story stems from a deep love for our church. It is from this place of profound care and concern that I raise important questions about safety and accountability,” Ayala Harris said. If the president-elect of our House and deputy chair of the Legislative Committee on Sexual Harassment, Sexual Exploitation, and Safeguarding can experience unsafe treatment right at the door of the House of Bishops during the General Convention, then who in our church can truly be safe? If there is no discipline for well-documented violations, then under what circumstances would discipline be imposed?”

Ayala Harris said three reports by two third-party investigators determined that the retired bishop “likely violated The Episcopal Church’s Title IV canons and New York sexual harassment laws.” Another report determined that the bishop in question “may have violated restrictions on his ministry.” Despite these findings, the assigned church attorney opted to refer the case for a pastoral response instead of discipline without providing an explanation, she said in the letter.

“I find this outcome deeply unsettling and feel the referral to be an obvious abuse of discretion by the church attorney,” Ayala Harris said.

In the letter, Ayala Harris said The Episcopal Church will continue its work of structural and procedural culture change and accountability and, through leadership from the Standing Commission on Structure, Governance, Constitution and Canons, as well as the Legislative Committee on Title IV Disciplinary Canons, the church will reexamine Title IV canons “ensure our commitments to safety and accountability, especially in areas where individuals have been given broad discretion with little oversight.”

At the 81st General Convention in 2024, all deputies and alternate deputies are invited to sign a voluntary community covenant that will establish shared guidelines and principles for conduct within the House of Deputies.

“I firmly believe that by working together, we can continue to strengthen our beloved church and its structures toward greater transparency, accountability, and safety for all of God’s children,” Ayala Harris said. “This difficult, long-term work requires dedication to living into the promises set forth in our Baptismal Covenant: to seek and serve Christ in all persons and respect the dignity of every human being.”