Our responsibility as clergy regarding abuse

Aug 15, 2018 by

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In what has to be one of history’s most poignant, trenchant ironies, Tuesday’s report from a grand jury in Pennsylvania about decades of sexual abuse by predatory priests and of cover-ups in high ecclesiastical offices was released on the same day that Roman Catholic Christians were celebrating the memory and ministry of Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Franciscan priest and martyr. For having hidden Jews in his monastery and publishing anti-Nazi literature, Kolbe was killed at the Nazi prison camp, Auschwitz, in 1941. He might have survived had he not offered himself in place of another prisoner whom the commandant of the camp had selected for execution. Kolbe did so because, unlike the condemned prisoner, he had no wife and children hoping and praying for his release. All this was foreshadowed in a vision that Kolbe had in his youth, in which Mary appeared to him and offered a choice of one of two crowns — one red, for martyrdom, the other white, for purity. Kolbe chose both.

The recent grand jury report and the story of Maximilian Kolbe’s martyrdom are equally true. They both require our attention, but not because one invalidates nor diminishes the other. They don’t. They highlight both the promise and the peril of Christian leadership and clerical calling, and not only for Roman Catholics. Tragically, no Christian denomination is without the stain of clergy sexual abuse somewhere, sometime, in its ranks and history.

It would be false and facile to blame the predation and pederasty of some Roman Catholic clergy solely on the enforced celibacy of their priests (though I do believe that it is wrong and unbiblical) and the resultant sexual frustrations. Sexual frustrations and predation can and do happen among married persons, too. Still, the rule of celibacy has to deter and disqualify persons otherwise called and gifted for ministry, and to create havens for men with complex psychosexual issues.

But sexual predation is at least as much an issue of power as it is of sex. Power is a two-edged sword. Some power is necessary if the clergy are to have healing and helpful access to people’s homes, hearts and lives. Call it “authority” instead, if you wish. The best kind of authority is that earned over time, by proofs of conduct and character.

Power and authority can also be misused to push people toward dependency and vulnerability to exploitation spiritually, financially, emotionally and, yes, sexually. While the rising tide of revelations about clergy sexual abuse only reinforce the truth that spirituality must guide sexuality (and not vice versa), it also reveals how closely connected sexuality and spirituality are. The spiritual intimacy of the pastoral relationship can so easily be hijacked and exploited for sexual intimacy.

That, however, is only one kind of abuse of power which Tuesday’s grand jury report revealed. The other has to do with the cover-ups, hush money and transfers of predatory clergy to new fields of predation on the part of bishops and cardinals. Such abuse of power is at least as bad as what it covers up. If “love covers a multitude of sins,” the only love I see working here is the love of clerical power, position, prestige and privilege by the so-called “princes of the church.”

Such disordered love of status and reputation is not a uniquely Roman Catholic thing, either. All clergy are tempted to stand on pedestals of their own making, with help from others. Catholic culture and hierarchy are not alone in making clerical reputation, separation and elevation so tempting, so easy, so preferable to transparency and accountability. A hierarchy powerful enough, and far enough removed from the laity, can build its own pedestals from the top down.

When I first worked with a congregation to draw up an abuse response and prevention policy some 15 years ago, we scratched our heads for quite some time trying to draw up a process of investigation and validation for any claims of abuse by clergy or other leaders. Then it struck us: Self-investigation would be part of the problem. It would constitute one more layer of abuse laid atop another. We’re talking about crimes against the vulnerable, not just embarrassments to an institution or a community. Any conceivable risks from full accountability and transparency are nothing compared to the damage already done by abuse. Our task became easier, and our job shorter, with two simple words: “notify police.” Unless we are willing to accept the risks and the reality of such rapid and uncompromising accountability and transparency, we have no place in the clergy. No church should be without a firm, clear policy for the protection of the vulnerable from all kinds of abuse. Once such a policy is in place, it must be reviewed and renewed regularly.

The most recent revelations from the Keystone State will only accelerate a growing social trend of distrust and disgust for church and clergy. Recent surveys put us behind military officers, doctors and nurses, farmers, judges, day care providers, police officers and others, and only a little ahead of used car salespersons and Congressional representatives in levels of public trust. I know and love some very trustworthy doctors, nurses, police officers, farmers and others who deserve their high reputations. But for pastors, that ranking is way down from generations past. Let’s not be too quick to blame the growing secularism of our increasingly post-Christian society. This wound is, in part, self-inflicted. Its healing will require the purification of the church and its clergy not only from sexual sins, but from sins related to the disordered love of power, property, status, security and secrecy.

We have gone through times of such revealing, healing and purification before. The Reformation was as much about abuse by and the reform of clergy and hierarchy as it was about doctrine. The militant atheism of Communist revolutions in Russia, China and elsewhere were reactions, in part, to the sinful cohabitation of church and state. Though at a terrible price, the effect was to purify and liberate the church from Constantinian corruption. Are we now going through some similar cleansing? “It is time now for judgment to begin with God’s household (1 Peter 4:17).”

Let’s not hope nor pray that such purification would restore our privileged status and reputation, so that we again get haircuts and baseball tickets again at clergy discount prices. Let’s leave life and death, honor and dishonor in God’s hands, by seeking God’s honor and pleasure, and the welfare of those whom we serve, above our own. It’s the least we owe to the victims of abuse.

Bear in mind, though, that this could be a recipe for even more disgust and distrust from a fallen world than what we now have from falling off pedestals. But such distrust would be for the right reason: the unavoidable scandal of the cross of Jesus Christ, and our likeness to him in the limitless love of sinners and the loathing of sin. Such was the reward of the Apostle Paul, whose status as “clergy” he described in his letter to his friends in Corinth, because they were overly concerned about their own status in society: “For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings (1 Cor. 4:9).” Because the Corinthians didn’t get the point, he reminded them in his next letter: “… through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything (2 Cor. 4:8b-10).”

Let all clergy embrace such possibilities, risks and costs. Otherwise, we are in the wrong “profession.” Just ask Maximilian Kolbe.

Mathew Swora is lead pastor of Zion Mennonite Church in Hubbard, Ore. He blogs at zionmennoniteoregon.org, where this post first appeared.

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