Sunday, March 28, 2010

Sexually abusive priests; how can we have forgiveness and accountability?

This article was originally written in 2004, but seems timely again. A few of the references (e.g. the John Jay study) are years old, but not much else has changed. I'm not Roman Catholic, but I think it's too easy for us Protestants to cast the first stone; the issue of standing firm on both forgiveness and accountability is always a challenge in a religion that insists on God's forgiveness.

"Why," you may ask, "should we discuss sexually abusive priests again? Isn't the secular media just hashing over old news? Aren't we just dwelling needlessly on something that is past? And this is a delicate subject. Some reactions to the scandals in the priesthood have crossed the line to Catholic-bashing. But more to the point, isn't the matter resolved? Isn't the church hierarchy taking steps to towards resolving the problem? Isn't it right that we should move on now?"

The problem is that we have not really resolved it. We have become embarrassed or taken sides, and may have seriously wished that the whole thing had never happened. But we have not resolved it. Here I will not discuss whether we should forgive the priests. For one, I was not wronged personally. For another, the offenders' ultimate redemption or condemnation is in God's hands. The question I wish to discuss is what we should do here and now. The church has taken steps all along, from investigating the allegations to treating the offenders to reassigning them, but those were not the solution. How do we know the current solution is any better? Have we actually discussed what an appropriate response would be?

This is where the history lesson of David and Bathsheba comes into our discussion (see 2 Samuel chapters 11 and 12). The Biblical narrative of David's fall into sin is very much to the point here because it deals with another sinner who was in a position of authority, one who abused his authority in order to commit his crime. After committing indecency with the wife of Uriah, David used his God-appointed position as king to arrange for the battlefield death of Uriah to try to cover up his crime. Uriah died, Bathsheba became the wife of David, and a son, conceived in David's treachery and deceit, was born.

In David's day, these were capital offenses. By law, he could have been executed. The king was not above the law of God. But looking at the Biblical history of David, we see that he confessed, he repented, and he was forgiven. He would not die for his crimes. "The LORD has taken away your sin. You are not going to die," the prophet Nathan announced to David.

Still, more came of David's sin.
1) The power of wars and battles, which he had abused, was turned back against his house;
2) The son he had as a result of his indecency was also taken from him by death.

In our own day, we seem to have confused forgiveness with the trust to continue with the same power and authority. Consider this example: A man hired his friend to work as a cashier in his store. After a time, the friend was found to have stolen a substantial amount of money from the store. This man could go to prison if convicted of the crime. The store owner forgives him: the offender will not be prosecuted and will not go to prison. But that hardly means that he gets to keep the stolen money or the position as cashier.

This was much the situation with David. He abused his authority, committed adultery, murdered Uriah, and received the blessing of a son by an adulterous union. Adultery and murder bore the death penalty. David was forgiven; he was not executed. But he did not enjoy the blessing of his son, who died. God also turned the power that David had abused -- the power of the sword -- back on David's own house.

In the case of the offending priests, we seem to have made the grave mistake of imagining that forgiveness of sins is the only issue to address. It is not. While reports like the one commissioned of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice may speak of a "misguided willingness to forgive," it is not the willingness to forgive -- or even the forgiveness itself -- that is misguided. The priests and their supervisors will stand or fall before God based on his own justice and mercy. The part that was misguided was this: not to recognize that continuing in a position of trust and authority is a separate issue. We should not confuse the full forgiveness of an offense with a supposed entitlement to keep a position of power. In Scripture, we see that the power which God had granted King David was turned back against him. His effective authority was lessened forever. Looking further back before David, we see that Saul was removed from his God-given position. Likewise, an abusive priest should not expect to continue in any position that allows the possibility of continued abuses, nor should be he be allowed to continue.

Some will say, "Isn't the abuse of power a sin like any other? As such, shouldn't it also be forgiven?" Of course, it is a sin that can be forgiven like any other. This is like the thief who abused his job to get money. In the case of the thief, the sin may be forgiven and the offender may not go to prison, but that does not mean he is entitled to keep the money or the cashier's job. The store owner may possibly decide to allow him to stay in another position, but as he values his cash drawer, he will keep the man who is tempted to steal far away from it. In the case of the abusive priest, the sin may be forgiven. The offender may not go to hell. Because of God's great mercy and power, even the most severely twisted soul can be re-created in the image of Christ. But that does not mean the abuser is entitled to keep his position of authority. As we value the children, we will keep those who abuse them far away from them. It has long been recognized that even with full forgiveness, there may be necessary consequences of a sin.

We have also made the mistake of confusing repentance with rehabilitation. Of course rehabilitation is impossible without repentance -- but that misses the point. Many people who repent are nevertheless plagued continually by sins they abhor and regret, never being cured fully of their evil inclination or their weakness to that temptation. Opportunities for evil are constantly around us. These only seem appealing when there is an answering character flaw in a person which makes that evil seem desirable. That is the nature of being tempted within ourselves: a desire for evil. We carry our character flaws with us always, even while striving to diminish them. They are not entirely gone until the day when we are fully re-created in the image of Christ. Simply because a person has repented does not mean that person is safe or beyond temptation. If we know that a particularly destructive sin tempts a person, we should not place him in a situation which lends opportunity to commit that sin. If a priest has committed sexual abuse, then we know that there is a character flaw in him which makes that evil seem appealing. We also know that the flaw is serious enough to overcome him. That priest should never again hold a position that provides opportunity for abuse. "Flee from temptation" is good advice for all of us, clergy and laity alike (see I Cor 6:18, I Cor 10:14, 1 Tim 6:11, 2 Tim 2:22). Forgiveness does not make it acceptable to place a weak brother in temptation or another person in danger because of it.

Of all types of sinners, why single out sexually abusive priests to be removed from office? After all, all priests are human therefore all priests commit sins. But not all sins tend to devastate the victims' souls, and not all sins involve abuse of the position of priesthood. A sin which does either -- devastate others' souls or abuse authority -- may be sufficient grounds to remove a priest from such a position. For a sin that does both, simple responsibility requires that the person be removed immediately from the position, even if the sin itself may be forgiven. We may declare God's forgiveness to the penitent, but a position of trust is only rightly given to a trustworthy character. Trust based on penitence alone is wishful thinking. Our decisions to prevent abuse must acknowledge the reality of temptation and human weakness even among the forgiven and penitent.

Finally, we must look at the ultimate reason why this issue is not resolved and for decades has not been resolved. There has been complacency, and even complicity, of far too many in the church hierarchy. Everybody agrees in principle that a supervisor is accountable for those he supervises. In the case of those who supervise abusive priests, the conduct of many in the church hierarchy seems more than simply negligent. It needs its own repentance. The signs of genuine repentance include a plain admission of wrongdoing and anguish over the harm that has been done. For the most part, these have been lacking. The official response has smacked more of embarrassment than repentance. Embarrassment is more concerned with the loss of self-image and the bad publicity than with the evil of the offense itself. The John Jay study cited an "overemphasis on the avoidance of scandal"; there was more concern at times for whether the church would be embarrassed than whether the children of the parish were being violated.

There seems to be an underlying assumption that we all should forgive the hierarchy. While this is a legitimate issue, it must not deflect from the present discussion. We must hold the hierarchy responsible for their actions. Forgiveness must never be a license to irresponsibility. And is it so unreasonable to try to find out whether the repentance is genuine? Would God have accepted any lesser sacrifice of David than a broken spirit and a contrite heart? Wouldn't God have despised any offering from hearts that were far from Him? Would David be a hero to us today if he had not finally become more pained by his wrongdoing than by the subsequent embarrassment that it caused him? The church's response has lacked credibility. We know that God's healing comes after confession and repentance. A plain admission of wrongdoing, unsullied by excuses, needs to resound. Every voice in the church, from top to bottom, needs to call out genuine outrage and anguish that such a thing ever happened and vow that it must never be allowed to happen again. Is anything less than this really repentance?

After we have established that there is genuine repentance, that leaves the necessary matter of repairing the wrong as far as we are able. Those who have been abused must never again be swept under the rug simply to avoid embarrassment. Any healing we can give them is long overdue. And let each member of the church be called by genuine repentance to work as hard as they are able, the rest of their lives, to earn back the respect and to restore the honor which has been lost to the name of Christ.


Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Astute observations, especially on the confusions between forgiveness and reinistatement, repentance and rehabilitation.

In the Orthodox Church, if a priest is found to have committed sexual sin, he is removed from the priesthood swiftly and permanently. And preferably quietly, but...

He can and should be forgiven. He may repent. He may even go on to become a saint whom we all revere. But having disfigured the image of Christ, whom a priest is supposed to iconize, he can never again serve at Christ's altar.

Even if there is no proof, but there are credible accusations / pieces of evidence, if there are enough of them, the man's priesthood is already ruined and he is supposed to be removed. A priest must be above suspicion when it comes to grave sins.

Weekend Fisher said...

That explains something I'd wondered about. Where I live, I haven't heard of any local pedophile priest scandals at the Roman Catholic churches, but the archimandrite of the local Eastern Orthodox church came under suspicion over accusations that were probably decades old, before he had come to the local congregation. He was removed immediately. I hadn't known it was church policy when an accusation like that comes up, but (assuming the accusations are merited) it makes good sense.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Weekend Fisher said...

P.S. - seems like it might be a good idea if the penance for something that is a crime, in addition to being a sin, included submitting yourself to the authorities and confessing in another venue than just the confessional.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for distinguishing between repentance and rehabilitation.