Choosing the Better Wounds
by Michael Spencer
Having been involved in ministry with teenagers for twenty-seven years, I read the recent reports of child sex abuse and a wide-spread cover up by the Roman Catholic hierarchy with more than passing interest. I have always lived with the uncomfortable awareness that even one charge of inappropriate behavior could ruin what has been, to this point, a very satisfying career. At the same time, I cannot help but have my own reaction to what I am hearing, and that reaction is colored by my “years in the business” as well.
Like everyone who hears these stories of repeated incidents of abuse and repeated cover-ups, I find such behavior deplorable and inexcusable. If proven, those who sexually abused teenagers should be punished to the full extent of the law, no matter what their age or position. Those bishops and other officials who reassigned the offending priests bear a responsibility as well, and they should resign out of common decency. There is no reason not to prosecute these men as well if they enabled and protected such behavior.
Please be aware of this as you read the rest of this column, because it may be possible to misunderstand my point that I have some reasoned doubts about all that we are hearing. Not doubt that such things happen, but doubts about the motives of those pursuing these charges and doubts about the exceptional nature of the incidents.
It’s my opinion that the Roman Catholic Church is the most hated single institution in America. Its values run counter to almost all the dominant cultural avatars. Its stands for male clergy, celibacy, and the pro-life position on abortion are enough to earn it the venom of millions. Add to this the suspicion and prejudice of millions of Protestants, and the general hostility of those who dislike religion in general, and you have a situation where I would not be surprised at this type of accusation. That is not to say I am a disbeliever, but only to say that I am not prepared to overlook the fact that there is a declared war on the Roman Catholic Church from several corners in our society, and it is naive to think that none of these charges come from that quarter.
Now I am not asserting the innocence of the church in these matters, but I am going to suggest that if similarly hostile critics were to look at any other institution where adult men and teenage boys are put together on a regular basis, one would find many similar incidents. Without raising any accusations, I would say that the public education system, the Boy Scouts, community sports teams, and my profession, the protestant ministry, would all have generous contributions of wrongdoing to be uncovered. And we may see this very soon, as the same forces hostile to traditional values begin to focus on other targets.
Now wait a moment, you say. These are particular and repeated incidents of sexual offenders transferred from church to church, protected by the system and allowed to ruin lives with no real accountability. Surely, Mr. Spencer, you are not trying to say everybody does this? Well, I am saying that this is a human behavior, and not a Catholic behavior. And I have good reason to think it is quite common.
I am not trying to stir up a stew, but I am aware of some in my profession who took advantage of young women sexually. These men were not prosecuted, but politely allowed to move on, and in all the cases I am aware of, to continue ministry in other settings. I am aware of similar occurrences in both public and private education, instances where parents were talked to, individuals were quietly dismissed or corrected, and no charges filed. I think many people of my generation are aware of teachers, coaches and ministers who engaged in inappropriate behavior, and managed to walk away with the assistance of persons in authority. In fact, I would go so far as to say this sort of behavior is common enough to have occurred in numbers comparable to the situation in the RCC, though I think the extent of repetition and reassignment are clearly unprecedented.
Now, an even more difficult thing for me to say is that I think we must admit that the culture of sexuality has changed in the last 40 years in ways that in no way excuse the behavior, but at least suggest we should consider some of the reactions in context. For example, I had a shop teacher in junior high school who liked to pat boys on the backside. It was a friendly pat, always accompanied by, “How ya doin’ fellas?” Now today, such behavior would be outrageous and would certainly result in lawsuits, dismissal, perhaps even arrest. We laughed at it. We laughed at it a lot. While I suspect this had more of a meaning to the teacher than it did to us, I never met a boy who took it as something other than a harmless idiosyncrasy. I have no reason to think that teacher ever harmed anyone, so this is sheer speculation, but the culture of the time would have handled a complaint about this man entirely differently than today. He would have been corrected, perhaps moved, but no one would have embarrassed the school or the community with a major crusade.
It was a different time. Naive to the realities of sexual abuse? Probably, but it was what it was, and we have to remember this when considering the reaction of the church at the time. The effects of sexual abuse were not known and feared as they are today, and an administrator who protected the institution and kept the story out of the papers felt he had simply carried out prudent problem-solving.
Those within the RCC and the larger Christian family who are assuming all these charges are true (and they may be) have their own agendas as well. Some want the clergy to be opened up to women. Many want the rule of celibacy to be lifted. Others want a perceived “gay ruling elite” to be exposed and removed, while others simply feel the bishops must be unempowered. With a change of popes not far off, it is a good time to press for changes and reforms in the church, but I would suggest those who would use this situation for these agendas are making a mistake. Scandal can be the breeding ground of reform, but not if our allies are the enemies of the church.
Which brings me to the point that these scandals provide an opportunity for us to confess one of the great blind spots of the church: its inability to admit its institutional sinfulness. To acknowledge that we are fallen persons is not hard, but to admit that all the deceitfulness of the human heart is multiplied within our institutions is much harder. We seem to endow our institutions with an absurd degree of infallibility, especially considering that conservatives particularly should be suspicious of the idolatry of any human system. Institutional evil not only exists in the hearts of persons who make up a church, it exists within the system itself, and manifests itself in particularly surprising ways. As far as I know, fallen human organizations cannot be redeemed, though the persons who make them up may.
So we should not wait for the world to discover our flaws and drag us through the streets in derision. Christians should police themselves, and not condemn those who do that good work. Remember the heat Cornerstone Magazine took for exposing Mike Warnke as a fraud? Or the continual criticism of Christian Research Institute for exposing the follies of the Word-Faith circus? You would think that the televangelist scandals of the eighties would have helped us appreciate that we need some accountability within the body of Christ. But Christians tend to be the worst at saying we are all sinners and therefore no one has the right to call anyone else an offender. This has allowed all sorts of ridiculous abuses and crimes to go on while plenty of people knew what was happening, but no one wanted to pull the cord and stop the train.
The scandals in the RCC have exposed the rottenness of Christian institutional blindness again, and I cannot say I am surprised. The RCC’s hierarchical structure makes the whole matter worse, since those charged with being shepherds are apparently too sympathetic to the plight of the wolves, at least as it affects the institutional church. Those of us in other ministries and institutions should learn from what is happening and speak honestly to one another about what we know is true. Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy. (Proverbs 27:6) We may not want to admit that the same problems currently embarrassing the RCC exist in our institutions, but we all know they do. What we don’t know is if we will be more forthcoming in admitting them and taking steps of repentance before the world befriends those we have overlooked and calls us to account.