A court of Episcopal Church bishops has ruled that a brother bishop should be punished for his adulterous affair of nearly two decades ago.

The nine-bishop court ruled that Charles Jones, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Montana since 1986, should face some form of discipline to be determined by the court.

Jones could be reprimanded, suspended, or removed from office. The court gave both sides of the case most of January to comment on the bishop's punishment, and it scheduled a hearing for January 30.

The court has been deliberating this case since February 1999, when it first received charges against Jones. In August 2000, the court ruled that Jones's adultery qualified as immorality, conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy, and sexual exploitation.

According to the court's ruling, the affair occurred "in or about [in] 1982," four years before Jones was elected a bishop.

Both Jones and the woman involved in the affair have kept their respective marriages intact since then. But the woman says the affair harmed her relationship with God and with the church. "God was taken away from me," she said in a written complaint. Though trial briefs cite the woman by name, reporters have respected her wish to remain anonymous.

Jones was rector of a church in Russellville, Kentucky, when the affair occurred. The woman was a member of his church and worked there as a housekeeper and coordinator of its Sunday-school program. She expressed interest in being ordained to the priesthood, and Jones was her sponsor in that goal. Jones is a godfather to one of her children.

A 'Window of Opportunity'

Because Jones was the woman's priest, employer, confessor, and marriage counselor, the affair opened him to charges of sexual exploitation, and to prosecution under Episcopal Church laws revised in 1997.

Those changes made it easier to bring charges of sexual misconduct against a bishop. The changes also opened a "window of opportunity," removing all statute-of-limitation barriers so long as aggrieved parties filed their complaints by July 1, 1998. The court has no similar cases in its docket, said Edward W. Jones, the presiding judge.

The court's only public hearing took place in Minneapolis on November 20, 2000, in a large room normally occupied by Gethsemane Episcopal Church's De'Novo Academy.

Sitting beneath students' handmade posters extolling such ideals as accountability, community, integrity, and restorative justice, bishops heard oral arguments by attorneys Gregory Nye for the Episcopal Church and Edward Curry III for the defense.

"We would not be here today, your honor, if this case did not involve sexual exploitation," Nye argued. Jones has "never paid the price for sexual exploitation. The only way he'll ever pay the price for sexual exploitation is if this court does the right thing."

Curry tried to persuade the judges that the church had previously disciplined Jones because Jones had agreed to psychological counseling and treatment during a leave of absence in 1993 and early 1994, when the charges first came to light.

Relying on such legal concepts as "accord and satisfaction" and "double jeopardy," Jones said those previous actions had resolved the matter.

Former Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning, his attorney, and his officer for pastoral development all said those actions were strictly pastoral and not disciplinary. Indeed, church attorneys argued that the presiding bishop had no authority to impose discipline on any misbehaving bishop. (Nevertheless, during Browning's 12-year administration at least two other bishops—Richard Trelease of the Diocese of the Rio Grande and Edward Chalfant of the Diocese of Maine—resigned their offices amid allegations of adultery.)

The bishops wrote in their ruling: "The court understands [Jones's] argument that he participated in a 'process' or 'proceeding' of some type in his interactions with the Presiding Bishop in 1993 and 1994. Two members of the court agree with that argument. By a vote of eight to one, however, the court concludes that [Jones] has not met his burden of proving the defense of double jeopardy."

The same court, meeting in 1996, ruled that the Episcopal Church has no doctrine of marriage that would forbid bishops from ordaining homosexual people, including those who engage in sexual relations outside of marriage. But married heterosexual clergy who engage in extramarital relations may face a day of reckoning in a church court—even, in this case, 19 years later.

Related Elsewhere

The Episcopal News Service offers more information on the trial.

The Courier-Journal of Louisville, Kentucky also covered the charges against Jones, and Tampa Bay Online ran an Associated Press story about the trial.

You can read about Jones's replacement at the Diocese of Montana homepage.

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