Clergy Sexual Abuse and Leadership


In thinking about the scandal of sexual abuse by clergy, our primary consideration must always be the victims. As much as we might have heard this, it cannot be repeated too often. In part because it is so hard to do and to do consistently. Here, as in all other areas of life, it is persistently difficult to think first of the other and not of oneself. Indeed, the failure to think of the other is what leads us to use and abuse people as means of one’s own gratification—sexual and otherwise. This, of course, is also a classic understanding of sin. That this pattern of sinfulness has recently been associated more with masculine experience and behavior is hardly irrelevant to the dynamics of the current scandal. Thus if we are serious about rooting out this problem we must attend carefully to patterns of self-absorption and privilege in our spiritual leaders. Even more, we must attend to those patterns in ourselves. Waiting until it manifests itself in egregious, crippling abuse is too late for both victim and abuser.

Victims of abuse, especially those who were abused as children, suffer deep and lasting harm. That tragedy is only compounded by the fact that at some level, these victims suffer precisely because they believed what the church told them—what we told them. They trusted their priests. They regarded them as special representatives of Christ on earth. They sought from them spiritual nourishment. In return their trust, their faith, was betrayed. They were manipulated and used by those they trusted. In many cases their spiritual and sexual lives, two of our most precious gifts, have been scarred for life. This is the first thing we must say about abuse and nothing else we say should diminish the harsh light of that reality or our awareness of the pain of the victims and their need for healing.

Part of what makes this so painful for many of us is that we too feel betrayed by people and by an institution we trust(ed). In addition, for some of us, members of our community, our friends, have been agents of this wrong. Here we come face to face with the reality of sin in our midst. Not in some remote time or place. Not in people I don’t know and can easily dismiss. But in people I know and a place I love. With that the drama of the biblical story and the message of the Gospel hit home in powerful ways, both comforting and discomforting.

In addition to the incidents of abuse, which is the heart of the matter, the current scandal is also about the way this abuse and the abusers have been handled by the leadership of the Catholic Church. In fact, I think it safe to say that Catholics came to terms with the reality of sinful, abusive priests (and others) a decade ago in the last round of scandals (a phrase as sad as needing to number our world wars). Without trivializing it or allowing ourselves to grow complacent, we realize that abuse of vulnerable people happens in all helping professions and that ordination does not give one an immunity from these temptations. What we may not want to face as a culture is just how widespread this abuse is. Statistics indicate that 1 of 4 women and 1 of 7 men say they have been sexually abused in some way by the age of 18. That is a stunning amount of abuse and it is not all by celibate, homosexual men. The church is part of this culture and, sadly, it seems to be as much part of the problem as of the solution.

We know about the reality of abuse. What we expect is that our leaders in every area of life, from scouts to psychiatry to the church, will do all they can to minimize the chances of abuse and will respond appropriately when it happens so that victims are cared for and the abuser does not abuse again. The outrage this time around is over the persistent failures of so many of our church leaders to live up to those basic human expectations. Where we might expect them to be among the best, they prove to be among the worst. A commentator on the ABC television special on this crisis captured it well when he said that the scandal is that these are horrific acts and our leaders were not horrified.

So many of our leaders did not seem to be caring about the right things. They were not thinking first of the victims or potential victims. They were not thinking first of the children and the terrible harm this does to them. They were thinking first of the institution, the priest, and the priesthood—as if these institutions and the work of the Spirit in them are so fragile that they must be protected from the truth. They were worried about causing scandal among the faithful—as if we, our faith and the work of the Spirit in us are so fragile, so immature whatever our age, that we must be protected from the truth. Of course, their decisions have brought about exactly what they feared. Not only did they enable further abuse to occur, they also caused further, deeper scandal among the faithful (and others), calling into question the integrity and viability of the very structures they sought to protect.

As a leadership issue, I can’t help but notice striking parallels between the scandals in the Catholic Church and the current spate of scandals in corporate America. While there are certainly many significant differences, there is a common core around the relation of power and accountability. The pattern in both is to think, or at least to act as if power and accountability are inversely related so that with more power comes less accountability. Accountability here is seen as going only one way: up. I am accountable to those above me. Inversely, power is seen as going only one way: down. I have power over those below me. Thus those at the top of the organizational pyramid have maximum power and minimum accountability. Or their accountability is so abstract as to be effectively non-existent. There are often elaborate structures to ensure the exercise of power from top down but little comparable for the flow of accountability. It is hardly controversial to say that this is a mistaken understanding of power. It is more than a simple mistake; however, it is a deep, enduring and pervasive temptation to which we are all prone. We could even see it at work in the drama of the Garden of Eden. This is a structure ripe with temptations to abuse of all sorts.

What we must learn, what we must teach, and, most importantly, what we must practice is that with more power comes more accountability, not less. Specifically, we in seminaries and theological schools must teach our students with our words, our deeds and our institutional practices how to avoid this temptation and how to practice institutional and ministerial leadership, ordained or non-ordained, in a way that links power and accountability, that respects and empowers others, that seeks open, transparent processes as much as possible. To do this effectively and with integrity we must not only talk about it, we must practice it. This is one of many places where outside oversight groups can be extremely important in helping us all live up to our aspirations.

A further similarity is the way the actions of a few discredit the good work of so many and lead to a loss of trust. Corporately, the deceptive practices of a few (we hope) cast doubt on the financial reports of all companies. Though we are fairly confident the economy is sound, we are not sure whom we can trust and as a result the market as a whole goes down. So too with the minority of abusive priests. Here it is especially clear that it is not simply the abuse that causes the scandal but the way many church leaders chose to deal with it. Keeping the abuse secret and sending the abusive priests back out among the non-abusers, in effect trying to hide the bad among the good, only makes the whole bunch suspect (corporate reports and priests). We are now seeing the effects of this loss of trust in the church and the market. Only when we establish reliable systems to distinguish the good from the bad will we be able to restore people’s confidence and trust in either economy. The bishops began to put such a system in place for the Catholic Church in Dallas. Now we need to implement it with consistency and integrity.

As noted earlier, members of our community are among the abusers to whom this policy applies. Of course, this is true of the community of the church as a whole, but that can be rather abstract. We face abusers far more concretely and personally, meeting them on the sidewalk or at the Eucharist. Once we recognize the great wrong they have done, admit it publicly, accept responsibility individually and communally, do all we can for the victim and to prevent abuse from happening again, what do we do about the abuser? How do we respond to these who have sinned who are our brothers? As the question is sometimes put to us, why aren’t the offenders simply thrown out of the community? Here arise profound and profoundly difficult theological problems.

First of all, as Christians we have no option but to love these abusers. The command to love our neighbor exempts no one. Every person we meet is our neighbor, a child of God whom we are commanded to love. What is so difficult to grasp and even more to implement appropriately is that sexual abuse is not only a story of sin; like all other sins, it can also be a story of conversion and forgiveness. But how are we to understand forgiveness with such horrific, painful acts? How are we to practice this institutionally? This is one of the most significant theological questions raised by these events. We will not answer it with any completeness here. As a contribution to our thinking about this, however, I offer some brief reflections on four passages from the Gospel of Luke that show the direction we need to take—without making it any easier to take it. The first is the easiest to relate to emotionally:

Jesus said to his disciples, “Occasions for stumbling [“skandal”] are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble”

This makes sense. And it seems to apply directly to the abusers (bracketing the historical-exegetical question of the referent of “little ones”). They have not only caused young people to stumble, they have made it extremely difficult for them to recover healthy, trusting relationships with others or with God. Such actions must have serious consequences. Into the sea with a millstone seems about right. We may not actually go that far, but it would certainly be appropriate to cast them out of our community. Doesn’t anything less look like we are condoning what they did?

Just as we’re getting caught up in this, though, Jesus (as he is wont to do) continues with a warning in the very next sentence: “Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, “I repent,” you must forgive”[17:3-4].

This is our dilemma. Sin is real. These are terrible deeds that cause great pain. Justice requires that they have consequences for the offender as well as the victim. But at the same time, repentance is also real. The possibility of conversion, the promise of forgiveness and new life are the heart of the Gospel we proclaim. Whatever our feelings, we are commanded by our Lord to forgive our brothers.

This forgiveness and the boundless, unconditional love of God that drives it are powerfully portrayed in the story of the Prodigal Son [15:1-32]. On his return home the prodigal says, accurately, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” True as this is, the father welcomed his son, celebrating his return saying, “this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” The older son, the one who has been loyal, hardworking and faithful, is not so quick to embrace his wayward brother. Shouldn’t there be some consequences of his actions? Yes, but there is time for that later. We need to welcome him home. I suspect that many of us have much of that older brother in us—at least I know I do—and it is not absent from my thinking about this current scandal and my sinful brothers.

Don’t those of us who are parents know this dilemma well? We love our children unconditionally. They don’t or at least shouldn’t need to earn our love. And yet it is also our responsibility to teach them right from wrong, to teach them that there are consequences of their actions. We must not give them the idea that we are condoning or enabling harmful, sinful behavior. Yes, actions have consequences, serious consequences, but among them is not the loss of our love.

This is the dilemma faced by our community. These sinful brothers are not automatically expelled from the community. The gospel we proclaim is a message of repentance and forgiveness. If, like the prodigal brother, they return, if they repent and resolve to live by their vows, they are welcome to remain in the community as forgiven sinners.

But their actions do—must—have consequences. Forgiveness does not mean that everything is OK, that what was done does not matter or that life can go on as before. On the contrary, part of true repentance, it seems to me, is realizing what one has done and why life cannot go on as before. Hence those in our community who have abused people of any age are removed from ministry and not allowed to celebrate Mass publicly, administer the sacraments or serve as spiritual directors. In addition, their actions, travel, social and ministerial options are restricted. Even though repentant, forgiven and loved, it must neither be nor even appear to be the case that nothing changes for the abuser after the abuse. Actions have consequences.

This brings us to our final passage, a line from the prayer Jesus taught us himself: “Do not bring us to the time of trial”[11:4]. Or as most of us know it: “Lead us not into temptation.” For the safety of potential victims and secondarily for the good of the offender, offenders must not be put in situations where they would be tempted to offend again. We may welcome a recovering alcoholic into the community, but we would not assign him to tend bar. We may forgive an embezzler and take him back into the community, but we would not put him in charge of our retirement funds. So too these offenders are forgiven and may remain in the community, but they are kept away from any situation where others would be at risk.

As we look to the future and imagine how the Spirit might lead the church out of this dark time, I see glimpses that are exhilarating. Laity who are treated as full adult participants in the work of the church. Priests who are not threatened by an empowered laity but know how to lead in a community of shared power and mutual accountability. A dream to be sure, but I think Saint John’s School of Theology can make some very significant contributions to making this dream a reality—contributions that have been in preparation since we began our work for liturgical reform, ecumenism and collaborative ministry. We can be an agent of hope for the church. Our most hopeful contribution is our graduates: Good and holy people who are preparing to lead the church of the future. May God be with us in our labors.

Clergy Sexual Abuse and Leadership
Theological Reflections
by Bill Cahoy, dean, Saint John’s School of Theology·Seminary
[Date Unknown in 2002]

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Topics: Abbey's Abuse Site, Bill Cahoy, ToDo

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