When a married pastor going through a period of “deep anguish and despair” told a fellow clergyman he needed to confess a sin, he twice asked for, and says he received, an iron-clad guarantee of absolute confidence.
But after Rev. Anthony H.T. Stephens admitted to having had an inappropriate relationship with a former congregant, the revelation promptly made its way to the presiding bishop, who contacted Stephens’ wife (like him, also a Lutheran clergyperson) and told her everything. Stephens was later defrocked over the alleged impropriety, which interrupted his ongoing ascension within the church—and deprived him of at least $1.5 million in future earnings.
That’s according to a tranche of court documents obtained by The Daily Beast, which includes a lawsuit Stephens filed against the Metropolitan New York Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (MNYS; ELCA) and four church officials, seeking six figures in damages and a return to the pulpit. In the self-filed suit, Stephens claims he had previously “occasional thoughts of suicide,” and had been suicidal earlier in the year, but says he made clear during the call that he would never go through with it because he has lost loved ones to suicide and “would be unwilling to inflict such pain on his daughter.”
The subsequent disclosure to his wife generated a fresh bout of suicidal ideation, the suit says, and Stephens began “a pattern of retiring at night hoping that he would not wake up in the morning.”
Stephens, 61, who in addition to his religious calling is a practicing lawyer in the Ulster County Public Defender’s Office, a licensed mental health counselor, and recently ended a years-long stint as an Army National Guard chaplain, is claiming, among other things, intentional infliction of emotional distress.
The church, on the other hand, said in a motion to dismiss filed Friday that Stephens’ “undisputed infidelity… constituted clear ecclesiastical misconduct,” and that no “confessional confidentiality” applied to the phone conversation during which Stephens copped to the supposed affair. In fact, according to the church, the bishop had been informed of Stephens’ apparent indiscretions a week prior, and the confession merely confirmed what they already knew.
On Monday, Stephens told The Daily Beast that he has been barred from performing any spiritual work since May, when he was removed from the Evangelical Lutheran Church roster.
“What breaks my heart is that people have come to me with the most personal and embarrassing stuff, on a regular basis,” Stephens said. I will never, ever disclose it. This is a special thing that clergy can do. There’s also a second part of it, which is, ‘Speak for God with words of comfort and forgiveness.’ And I got the exact opposite.”
Stephens has more than 30 years of experience in the ministry, and “will take many secrets to my grave,” he continued. What happened to him, Stephens said, “was like the sacraments turning poison.”
Attorneys for the church did not respond to requests for comment on Monday.
For the soft-spoken Stephens, becoming a priest in the Evangelical Lutheran-Episcopal church, which formally merged decades ago, had been a “dearly held ambition and desire since age of fourteen [sic],” his lawsuit states, adding that his “father, grandfather, great-uncle and great-great-uncle were Anglican priests in his native England.”
Stephens graduated from Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in 1995, with a master’s in divinity. He earned a second master’s degree in human development and counseling, in addition to a doctorate in education and a J.D. He served as pastor of Our Savior Lutheran Church in Croton-on-Hudson from 2002 until 2016. Stephens was then hired as senior chaplain to Joint Task Force Empire Shield, an Army National Guard, Air National Guard, and New York Naval Militia counterterrorism force, a position he said he left about 18 months ago.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has a famously pro-social justice streak, and in 2021 installed an openly transgender bishop in Northern California. During his career, Stephens has worked as a rape crisis counselor, provided free legal services to victims of domestic violence, volunteered in psychiatric hospitals, and provided pastoral care to 9/11 workers, survivors, and families.
Join us tonight at 7 p.m. Central time for a conversation with Indian boarding school survivor George McCauley. September is the month of remembrance for Indian boarding schools. No preregistration is required to participate. Just click “join the class”. https://t.co/RnNZxcVOGq pic.twitter.com/Iqrj26ia54
— ELCA Lutherans (@ELCA) September 13, 2023
On Nov. 14, 2022, some six years after he left Our Savior, a tormented Stephens contacted Rev. Christopher Mietlowski, the assistant to Bishop Paul Egensteiner, head of the MNYS.
Stephens told Mietlowski in a phone call that he wanted to discuss “a very personal matter [that was] deeply disturbing and upsetting to [him], and one where confessional silence and counseling confidentiality were to the essence,” his lawsuit states. Mietlowski agreed, and Stephens proceeded to reveal something—the details of which remain unexplained in his suit.
Within 24 hours, Mietlowski had given a blow-by-blow of the call to Egensteiner, who then got on the phone to Stephens’ wife to report what had happened, according to Stephens’ suit.
“Immediately thereafter… Stephens’ [wife] called [Stephens] and noted dryly, in sum and substance, ‘Chris’s (Mietlowski) idea of confidentiality is obviously very different to yours,’” it states.
Stephens “was mortified that BOTH Egensteiner and Mietlowski had broken confessional silence and disclosed protected and privileged information,” the lawsuit continues. “[Stephens’] reliance on ELCA ecclesiology and trust, and confidence that the ELCA was a vehicle of his faith was shattered, and he felt a deep sense of betrayal, alienation, and moral injury.”
Although Stephens does not specify what his alleged transgression was, the church’s motion to dismiss rather candidly fills in the gaps.
“The subject misconduct was a complaint received by the Bishop of the MNY Synod that [Stephens] allegedly engaged in an extramarital affair with a former congregant of the Our Savior Lutheran Church,” the church’s motion states.
The motion says Stephens “does not deny that he engaged in infidelity with this former congregant, but instead pleads that at the time, she was ‘not a minor,’ was a ‘person of suitable age and discretion, and not lacking in capacity.’”
This, according to the church’s motion, “did not in any way minimize the ecclesiastical misconduct committed by Plaintiff under the ecclesiastical rules of the ELCA.” (The lawyers representing the church are also representing Egensteiner and Mietlowski.)
Further, the motion goes on, Egensteiner was first advised of the alleged affair between Stephens and the former congregant on Nov. 7, seven days before Stephens’ call to Mietlowski, and launched an investigation into the claim. In a Jan. 27, 2023 letter to Egensteiner marked “CONFIDENTIAL,” a copy of which the church filed to the public docket last week, Stephens called the relationship an “intimate” one.
“I do not deny the immorality and poor judgment of a certain brief period of time, very much lament the pain and suffering experienced by others, and certainly accept reprimand, reproach and even censure,” he wrote. “I am also not seeking to avoid accountability.”
The former parishioner became obsessed with Stephens, contacting him and threatening his wife hundreds of times by text, email, and social media, according to his lawsuit. (Stephens says in the filing that he has foregone pressing criminal charges against the woman “out of compassion.”)
On May 2, Egensteiner informed Stephens in a letter that he was being removed from the church, a development Stephens said blindsided him. The letter generated fresh suicidal ideations, and Stephens again “contemplated execution of a plan to end [his] life,” according to the lawsuit.
“[O]nly [Stephens’] expertise in suicide prevention, and devotion to his children and certain others, who he wished to spare pain, allowed him to martial [sic] the resources to stay alive,” the suit states.
On Monday, Stephens attempted to walk back the description of the affair in court filings, insisting to The Daily Beast, “I’ve never said to anyone, in the synod staff or otherwise, that this was a sexual relationship.” He also said he was “not admitting to anything,” but that, “Nevertheless, I really regret it and wish it had never happened, in any shape, form, or fashion. That’s my fault. I should have had better situational awareness.”
In his lawsuit, Stephens argues he did not have “any fiduciary or hierarchical relationship” with the former parishioner, which he emphasized in Monday’s interview, claiming “this person was actually never a member of my church.” He also pointed to a section of his lawsuit which recalls a 2002 exchange with the parishioner during which she “noted, in writing, ‘You’re not my fucking pastor.’”
“I thought that was pretty unequivocal,” Stephens said.
Stephens says in his lawsuit that his relationship with Egensteiner has been fractured for many years, and that he has previously deep-sixed opportunities for advancement. As for the alleged affair, Stephens claims church elders never told him he was under investigation, never gave him a chance to respond to the allegations, and was otherwise denied due process. He was not given an opportunity to resign, and instead, Egensteiner “personally ram-rodded [Stephens’] disenfranchisement through MNYS Synod Council,” according to his lawsuit. It says he will lose out on expected future church-related earnings “in the sum of one million five hundred thousand dollars ($1.5MM).”
In an odd aside, Stephens claims in his suit that he wouldn’t have been dealt with so harshly if he was a member of a minority group. He notes in his suit that although he is a straight, white male, he “has demonstrably and unequivocally been an unrelenting proponent of women’s rights, and particularly women’s victim’s rights,” as well as a staunch ally to people of color and the LGBTQ community. However, Stephens’ suit alleges, members of those groups who have found themselves “in analogous predicaments… have been treated differently by MNYS.”
“I was presumed to be guilty, and others I know, who are not white males, have been treated differently,” he told The Daily Beast.
Stephens’ claim of being treated differently on account of his race and gender is “baseless,” according to the church’s motion.
Church vs. State
Stephens is now mending fences with his wife, who, he said on Monday, is “a fantastic person, the kindest person you could meet.” He continues his work as an attorney and psychotherapist, while holding out hope his lawsuit will restore his status as a clergyman.
The church, on the other hand, argues that New York State Supreme Court is not the place for such a decision to be made.
Stephens “improperly seeks to assert common law claims” in what is inherently a church proceeding, the synod’s motion to dismiss states.
“Even more outrageous, [Stephens] seeks to have this Court entangle itself into the religious and ecclesiastical rules and affairs of the ELCA and MNY Synod, and ‘expunge’ his admitted infidelity with his former congregant from the ‘records of the MNY Synod and ELCA’ under the guise that he was allegedly not afforded ‘canonical due process’ and that some of his statements made during the investigation of the extramarital affair were purportedly subject to what he unilaterally now labels as ‘confessional confidentiality,’” the motion argues.
In addition to being welcomed back as a pastor, Stephens is seeking a total of $450,000 in damages, plus “a reasonable contribution to an Episcopal Charity favoring female victims of domestic violence.” He is also demanding the synod uphold a policy guaranteeing anything a “penitent/counselee” tells a clergy member stays secret, “particularly if they are at the lowest point in their life.”
To date, no one from the Evangelical Lutheran church has made “any effort” to check in on Stephens’ well-being, according to his lawsuit. This, the suit says, is evidence that Egensteiner and Mietlowski “were either callous and unearing towards a suicidal parishioner, or that they did not believe that parishioner was suicidal and therefore the expectation of confidence could not be broken, but nonetheless was.”
Still, Stephens remains optimistic overall about the church, and views what happened in his case as an aberration.
“There are certainly clergypeople who will respect confessional silence,” he told The Daily Beast. “If a person is deeply distressed, even contemplating taking their life, I would not want them to be discouraged to approach them.”