A Pennsylvania grand jury’s report this week about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church was devastating and heartbreaking. The stories are despicable; even more troubling is the Church’s refusal to address problems immediately, its systemic patterns of cover-up and its inability to take corrective action to minimize the risk of future abuse.
We struggle any time we discover the horrific and abusive ways in which human beings can treat other human beings.
But it is something else altogether when the source of the mistreatment comes from people, and organizations, in whom there is a higher — indeed a sacred — trust. Or was a higher, sacred trust. Many of the episodes happened because people, and especially parents, thought they could trust priests and the Church. After all, they had been told that priests are representatives of Christ, and the Church a sign of God’s Reign.
I published an op-ed almost two decades ago called “Tough Love for Sexual Abusers” when the Catholic sexual abuse crisis was first coming to public awareness. I emphasized the importance of dealing with the issues systemically, the significance of focusing on care and justice for victims, and the theological significance of avoiding “cheap grace” and trivializing forgiveness.
In retrospect, my piece was naïve. I assumed that leaders in the Church would move quickly, theologically and administratively to address the problems. They did in some ways, but clearly nowhere near enough. The breadth and details of systemic issues contained in the grand jury report demands a serious reckoning — now.
I am not Roman Catholic, but I am a Christian. I am also a United Methodist pastor and dean of Duke Divinity School, an institution that prepares women and men in Protestant traditions for pastoral ministry. The grand jury report not only raises important questions for ordained ministry and the Church across the traditions, but also damages the credibility and trust of the Church and of churches, precisely at a time when people yearn for places and people and institutions worthy of trust.
And it is not as though Protestants are only indirectly culpable. Recent stories about sexual misconduct at Willow Creek Church, and among high-profile leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention, are reminders that betrayals of trust and abuses of power are neither isolated nor the exclusive problems of one sector or tradition.
We Christians have serious repair work to do. We need, first, to hold ourselves to higher levels of accountability than that required by the law. We certainly need to work with legal authorities who are more competent and independent to investigate allegations when they occur. And we need to be willing to be transparent, candid and accountable.
Second, we must corporately and personally embody repentance, humility and prayerful commitment to victims as we come to terms with the damage done by the Church. This especially includes our leaders; we must reckon more clearly with the dangerous abuses of power, and articulate more clearly wise uses of power.
Third, we must begin to work to rebuild trust. This will take a long time, as one of the great tragedies of any betrayal or breach is how much longer it takes to rebuild trust, if it is possible at all, than to destroy it. This will require courage, truthfulness and a willingness to change.
Fourth, those of us entrusted with educating and forming clergy need to change. We need to pay greater attention to issues of sexual abuse and institutional accountability in our coursework and scholarship; focus more on the character expected of those entrusted with clergy leadership; and identify how to minimize the risks of damage by complex organizations, its leaders and their exercise of power.
I hope this will be a wake-up call for all people of faith, and especially divinity schools and seminaries. I hope we will prepare women and men to practice humility and embody trust, to nurture organizations capable of preventing abuse and to cultivate more faithful witness in all we are and do. The challenges are daunting; the urgency of addressing them is clear. May we rise to the challenges.