I know that many people would rather not talk about sexual abuse in the church – or rather I not talk about it. And I would rather not talk about it, so we are all in agreement.
And that, it seems to me, must be part of the problem.
The other day at the Seminary of the Southwest, I was having a chat at one of the picnic tables with two juniors when they sighed, stood up and made their apologies. They were off to do the Episcopal Church’s “Safeguarding God’s Children” class, our training for preventing sexual abuse of those we serve.
I did my training enough years ago that I’d probably be due for a refresher course if I were doing parish work, but I remember it well. Basically “Safeguarding” grows out of our awareness of the potential for abuse – and by making it a topic of conversation instead of trying to pretend it never happens, we try to make it less likely.
Sexual abuse is not exclusive to the Catholic Church, and so I hope what I write will not be seen as simply calling my Catholic sisters and brothers to account. Although I am certainly doing that, I would do the same if a Methodist hierarchy were moving a pederast pastor from church to church or if Assembly of God deacons were covering up their pastor’s sexual indiscretions because it is bad for the church.
Studies show that far too many clergy of whatever stripe have sex with people in their congregations, but it is Catholic priests in the news at the moment, and it is Catholic bishops and archbishops decrying media coverage of these events.
A reprehensible human truth: people in power, or some version of power, take advantage of those over whom they have power. Professors, politicians, pastors – the news is always full of people who have had sex with those over whom they hold some form of authority. You and I may also have personal stories about such people.
Like others in positions of authority, clergy and church workers sometimes take advantage of the power differential between them and those they serve, a difference that can incorporate both spiritual and emotional power. Some people – infants, children, teens – are clearly not capable of choosing to have sex, and we think of this abuse as particularly heinous because it is.
But even those who we might think are old enough to choose affairs may be making choices influenced by transference, guilt and other powerful factors. Whatever her other wisdom, an 80-year-old woman may not be competent to choose to have sex with someone who has charge of her soul.
And so the rule, simply, is this: leaders of the church should not abuse those under their care. They should not enter into consensual relations with those under their care, and they should not imagine that their positions in the church protect them from wrongdoing or ethical mishaps.
The firestorm of scandal swamping the Catholic Church just now is sad and infuriating because not only did it happen, which breaks my heart, but it has continuously been mishandled by the Church itself, and that affects all of us who call ourselves Christian. The Catholic Church is our parent, and when our father or mother is getting its booking picture broadcast on the nightly news, it reflects badly on us as well.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, recently said that the Catholic Church in Ireland had lost its credibility because of sex scandals there. Some people might think this a statement comparable to, I don’t know, “Dogs eat vomit,” something we all recognize but we don’t talk about because it’s unpleasant and repugnant. But the archbishop’s comment unleashed a wave of resentment like you would not believe: outrage, calls for apologies. Check out the British papers.
Martin Marty had written on March 29, just prior to the archbishop’s statement, that perhaps Protestants have not called for more forthrightness from the Catholic Church for positive reasons: ecumenism, sympathy, a sense that this is something for Catholics to condemn. But, he said, it may also be a matter of professional embarrassment, an “old boys club” in which people who wear clerical collars protect other people who wear clerical collars.
So when someone who wears a clerical collar – and an archbishop’s cope and mitre, for good measure – points out that not only is the Catholic abuse scandal morally repugnant to all people, but it harms the Church itself, well, that is – judging by the outrage – taken as a betrayal of the “old boys club.” An editorial in The Guardian on April 5 notes with droll British humor that the perception that the Catholic Church has lost credibility in Ireland is “so widely shared, and so close to the truth, that to say it out loud has produced an enormous row.”
But we don’t talk about it.
Only here’s the problem: when we don’t talk about it, as the record shows, then people get away with victimizing others.
When we don’t talk about it, people outside the church get to point their fingers at our hypocrisy, at our desire to protect our institution whatever the cost.
When we don’t talk about it, those who have been hurt by church leaders may imagine that they are the aberrations, or, worse still, somehow to blame for what happened to them.
I wrote in a recent blog post about health insurance that I think a big part of what Christianity is about is protecting the least of these, and I stand by that, but I’ll go global with this: When any religious leader – Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, Shaolin monk – abuses or takes advantage of a person under his or her (although, God help us, it is almost always a him, isn’t it?) care, there should be consequences.
And those consequences should not merely be movement to another place where the offense can happen again.
I love the Catholic Church as a parent, but my heart does not break for any perceived offense to the church.
It breaks for those innocents harmed by it.
God, forgive us for the wrong we have done. For those things we have left undone. And help your church, we pray, to be an instrument of healing for those who are hurt, suffering and alone. In the name of the one who suffered that we might know abundant life, our Savior Jesus Christ, who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, One God, Now and Forever. Amen.
Greg Garrett is professor of English at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. He blogs at The Other Jesus.