“What is all this business about child sex abuse by clergy going to do to the church,” I was asked recently. The question begs an honest response.
While the spotlight in recent months has been on priests of the Catholic faith, ministerial immorality knows no faith or denominational boundaries. It is and always has been a crime with an infinitesimally small number of clergy and has been perpetuated through a cover of silence by the church leadership.
As early as 1988, the Florida Baptist Witness news magazine published a special section dealing with child sex abuse and the silence of the church.
Two years later, the publication dealt with the issue of ministerial immorality. While the overwhelming response was positive, many readers expressed concern that a denominational magazine would air its dirty linen in public.
As editor, I chose to break the code of silence for such conduct. At the time, unfortunately, outside a couple of unscientific surveys, there was little authentic research to measure the extent and damage of ministerial immorality. That is no longer the case.
While the incidence of ministerial immorality may be no greater today than in the past, church members are no longer willing to ignore it or keep it quiet. And while the number of clergy involved in such activity is infinitesimally small, the church owes it to both its clergy and people to deal with the abusers.
As the issue is no longer underground, the church must propose ways in which both the clergy and the laity can confront and deal redemptively with the situation. Failure to deal firmly and consistently with the problem will only permit it to continue with impunity.
The benefits in confronting this issue openly and forthrightly are numerous. One is that it will encourage churches to establish policies and procedures which can help identify the problem before it occurs. This should include a thorough examination of potential minister. Such policies should include procedures for dealing with the problem should it arise in order to prevent it from being perpetuated at another church because it was not disclosed.
I remember being shocked several years ago when the chairman of the personnel committee on which I served asked the pastor if he had obtained a police report on a prospective staff member. After the initial shock of such a request–and reading a news article where a church had been held liable for $3 million for employing a minister with a history of sex abuse–obtaining a police report, along with a credit report and other references, seemed like a good idea.
Another significant benefit of dealing with this issue openly and forthrightly is that it would serve to validate and commend the conduct and record ministers and priests who are faithful. The overwhelming majority of ministers strive diligently to be models of the faith, and it is a testament to their faithfulness for the congregation to know of their excellent record.
Yet another benefit would be to assure church members, families, communities and the world that while the church is not made up of perfect people, it intends to be faithful to the tenets of its faith.
Parishioners need to be aware also of the demands and expectations they place on the minister. After all, they are not gods. While they should be held to a high standard of moral and professional conduct, they should not be expected to meet the demands and expectations of a deity.
Likewise, clergy should remember this. They should be on guard at all times to their humanity. It is not a sign of weakness to acknowledge the limitations of one’s ability to be all things to all people, nor to have answers to all questions, or solutions to all problems. An awareness of one’s own limitations and expertise can help the minister direct parishioners with serious needs or concerns to professional counselors.
Breaking the code of silence on ministerial immorality is past due. Dealing openly and forthrightly with the issue offers numerous possibilities for strengthening the mission and ministry of the church. It can exonerate the faithful, weed out the culprits, serve to establish sound policies and procedures for church management, enhance the relationship between pastor and people, and help to restore the confidence of betrayed parishioners.
Jack Brymer of Birmingham, Ala., recently retired from Samford University after a 30-year career as a Baptist journalist. This column appeared originally in the Anniston Star.