General Convention takes initial steps toward addressing leadership crisis in Diocese of Haiti

By David Paulsen
Posted Jul 3, 2024

[Episcopal News Service] The Diocese of Haiti, The Episcopal Church’s largest diocese by membership, has been in leadership limbo since its last bishop election in 2018 failed to receive churchwide backing over procedural concerns and allegations of favoritism. Since then, the Caribbean nation, the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, has been torn by civil unrest and gang violence, and scandals have ensnared some top diocesan officials.

An internal fight over control of the diocese broke out last year, with two rival factions claiming they had elected the diocese’s legitimate standing committee. The 81st General Convention, meeting last week in Louisville, Kentucky, chose not to intervene directly in that diocesan dispute, though the bishops and deputies took what they hope are initial steps toward canonical changes that will help Haitian Episcopalians eventually elect a new bishop.

The convention passed Resolution D071, which calls for a study of “the leadership obstacles faced by the Diocese of Haiti” and for the development of a new canonical process that would allow churchwide leaders to assist Haiti – and any other diocese that faces a similar crisis in the future. The Standing Commission on Structure, Governance, Constitution and Canons is expected to draft and submit its proposal for consideration in 2027 by the 82nd General Convention.

Bishop Todd Ousley, who heads the church’s Office of Pastoral Development, provided guidance to the General Convention committees that amended D071, and he spoke in favor of it in the House of Bishops on June 27 before the bishops’ vote. The standing commission’s task will be to “provide us mechanisms, in those rare instances when a diocese is unable to move forward, to create a solution and [offer] support from churchwide structures,” Ousley said.

One of Ousley’s duties is to assist dioceses during their leadership transitions and bishop elections. He alluded to one of the central challenges in responding to the Diocese of Haiti. “We are faced with canonical hurdles to doing those things which will enable autonomous leadership and practical solutions through unusual and overwhelming crises in a diocese.”

Vendors sell fresh produce at a street market a week after the assassination of President Jovenel Moise, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on July 14, 2021. Photo: Ricardo Arduengo/REUTERS

The current crisis came into focus in June 2018 when the diocese elected the Very Rev. Joseph Kerwin Delicat, dean of Holy Trinity Cathedral in Port-au-Prince, as bishop coadjutor. That election failed to receive the necessary churchwide consents from a majority of bishops and diocesan standing committees. When Bishop Jean Zaché Duracin retired in March 2019 without a successor, the standing committee assumed authority over the diocese, which counts nearly 100,000 members.

Since then, the diocese reportedly has devolved into chaos and infighting, and in July 2022, at least a half dozen current and former diocesan officials were implicated in an arms trafficking case, including the standing committee president. The case remains under investigation.

The Rev. Jean Madoché Vil, the standing committee president, said in May 2023 that electing a new bishop remained a priority, crucial to the survival of the diocese. Vil, however, gave no timeline or plan for holding an election, and rival Episcopal leaders said they had convened their own synod to elect a standing committee to replace the one headed by Vil.

The Diocese of Haiti is the largest Episcopal diocese numerically. Some Episcopalians have urged The Episcopal Church to play a greater role in resolving the turmoil in the Diocese of Haiti, though churchwide officials’ ability to intervene is limited by the church’s Constitution and Canons – at least until potential revisions can be proposed, considered and approved.

The 81st General Convention passed three resolutions total relating to Haiti. D060 addresses the civil turmoil in the country, which it describes as “an environment of political chaos, insecurity and fear for many Haitians.” It pledges support to global efforts to find solutions to the crisis, and it commits the presiding bishop’s office to working “with the clergy of Haiti to bring a bishop’s presence to Haiti.”

Resolution D070, one sentence long, encourages “all Episcopal congregations and other worshipping communities to include the people of Haiti in their intercessory prayers regularly.”

The initial draft of Resolution D071 proposed recognizing “the interim Standing Committee of the Diocese of Haiti as the ecclesiastical authority of the diocese,” which Ousley warned could be seen as General Convention taking sides in the unresolved internal dispute.

The “interim standing committee” was not elected by the officially recognized synod of the diocese, Ousley explained in a June 22 meeting of the committees on Governance & Structure. “We’ve got these competing entities for legitimacy,” he said, and The Episcopal Church Canons do not yet specify a role for churchwide leaders in resolving such a standoff.

“The reality is the clergy and the laity in the diocese are still severely broken into factions and unable to come together as a leadership,” Ousley said.

The hope behind the revised D071 was to address “those rare circumstances when a diocese is so severely imperiled,” he said. “It’s a rare instance, but when we need it, we need it.”

The Rev. Susan Fortunato, who crafted D071’s initial text, agreed that the Diocese of Haiti is a complex case, and one of great interest and concern to the wider church and to her own Diocese of New York.

“We have an incredible relationship with the Diocese of Haiti,” Fortunato said. New York is home to many Haitian immigrants “who are really suffering right now because they have family and friends in Haiti. We need to find one way to move forward in the midst of this complexity.”

– David Paulsen is a senior reporter and editor for Episcopal News Service based in Wisconsin. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.


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