GARDINER — A longtime minister of Christ Episcopal Church has been placed on a two-year suspension following a months-long church investigation that found he engaged in sexual misconduct consisting of “inappropriate language and interpersonal boundary violations.”

Church members were told at Sunday’s service that the Rev. Jacob Fles had been suspended. Fles has conducted services at the city’s landmark church, at the corner of Gardiner Common on Dresden Avenue, for 17 years.

A joint statement issued by both Bishop Stephen Lane and Fles said that the church’s inquiry did not uncover any evidence of criminal behavior.

“The past four months have been difficult for all parties: the complainants, the people of Christ Church, Father Fles and his family, and all involved in the investigation,” the statement said.

Contacted by phone on Monday, Fles declined to comment.

Fles is well known in Gardiner for his annual Blessing of the Motorcycles at Christ Church — a memorial to motorcyclists who have died. Fles had been on placed on paid administrative leave since late September while the Episcopal Diocese of Maine investigated allegations of sexual misconduct, financial impropriety and improper clergy conduct.

Gardiner police investigated a complaint against Fles, but closed the case without finding any evidence. Fles, who is married and has three children, is not facing criminal charges, according to Police Chief James Toman.

The church’s statement, while acknowledging “inappropriate language and interpersonal boundary violations” by Fles, also said the investigation found no evidence of financial misconduct.

That allegation invoked the Episcopal Church’s Title lV Disciplinary Canons, a revised set of church rules that went into effect July 1, 2011.

Heidi Shott, a diocese spokeswoman, said the disciplinary action against Fles is one of the first since the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in 2009 revised the canons known as Title lV “to make clergy discipline first and foremost a process of discernment, mediation and pastoral response rather than one that is legalistic and judicial.”

“It’s fairly safe to say, since the process was just approved in July, that this is one of the first,” Shott said Monday. “The way it’s changed is that the former clergy discipline was based on military discipline, so it was definitely more on the judgmental side. The new process is to be more like a board of review a lawyer or a doctor might have. It’s looking for a more reconciling process than in the past, and it’s just now being tested.”

An intake report was presented on Sept. 22, 2011, to the church’s Reference Panel of the Disciplinary Board. The panel requested additional investigation, so an investigator was hired and interviewed 18 people over the course of eight weeks. Fles has signed an accord, which satisfies the requirements of the church’s disciplinary rules.

“The conclusion of the matter and the signing of the accord brings this chapter to a close,” the church statement says. “However, it is our prayer that new life and possibilities will spring from this moment and that healing may begin for all of those involved and affected by the actions of the past and these proceedings.”

The statement said Fles’ reinstatement at the end of two years is dependent upon him meeting several unspecified conditions during the suspension period. Not following those conditions will result in continued suspension, the statement said.

Meantime, Fles is pursuing disability retirement from the Church Pension Group “due to physical disability resulting from the toxic effect of two years of liver failure prior to his liver transplant in December 2010,” according to the statement.

Fles took an 18-month leave to have a liver transplant. He returned to his duties June 1, 2011. He had been ill with hepatitis C and pulmonary hypertension, a secondary condition caused by liver disease. His daughter donated 60 percent of her liver to Fles during a procedure at the Lahey Clinic in Burlington, Mass.

Mechele Cooper — 621-5663

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