Understanding Clergy Sexual Abuse
With the tragedy of clergy sexual abuse back in the headlines, we’re once again confronted with questions of power, dysfunction, and deception in the church. Here’s an inside view of why the matter continues to plague churches, and why our thinking about the issue needs to change.
The sex abuse scandals plaguing the Catholic Church simply will not go away. Even the Pope himself is not immune. Recent stories have focused on his alleged complicity in transferring a known pedophile in his diocese to another parish after he had been caught in sexual abuse. This happened around 1980 when the future Pope Benedict XVI (then known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) served as archbishop in Munich.
That this happened then and that it continues to take place is not a surprise. Much has been written about troubling revelations and staggering numbers of clergy, Catholic and Protestant, who’ve been caught in the snare of sexual misconduct. Little has been written about why sex. Why not, for instance, kleptomania?
A few years ago I participated in a writer’s conference, sitting at a table to represent my publication, when a disproportionate number of aspiring authors who came for critique ended up being pastors’ wives with narratives and poems in hand, their faces wide with tragic optimism. As I read their stories I quickly laid aside the manuscripts and looked into their sad eyes. We ended up discussing not the writing but what had gone wrong in the church that these isolated women must resort to “fictional” narratives about sex and betrayal of clergy husbands. I too had been married to a pastor. I understood them.
One woman at the writer’s conference told me that the man who had been her senior pastor and personal friend had “impregnated a woman he was counseling.” She said, “If I weren’t married to someone I knew to be a man of God, I don’t think I could ever listen to another preacher again. God calls unusual people to ministry. I think you’ll find they usually have family issues.”
Hard numbers are nearly impossible to come by since the nature of the problem is so deeply personal and compromising; those who confess usually do so at the point of being found out rather than volunteering a confession. I dare say that the gifted, devoted, and disciplined men and women who lead religious communities with humility and integrity greatly outrank the number of the fallen. That said, numbers of the fallen are greater than one might presume.
I have written extensively on the topic and cannot include all my research in this post. However, in the course of my work, I spent many hours with a former Catholic priest who had been caught in predatory sexual abuse of young men in his parish. He freely and openly told me his story. Below I render a small portion from an on-the-record interview that explains, twisted though it may be, why the clergy abuse issue is about sex and not kleptomania:
I perverted my own neediness into the delusion that I’m giving something incredibly special to these human beings. Some of the youth themselves felt that way at the time. It was the only kind of love they had ever received. The hardest part of their recovery has been their recognition that, as a man of God, my relationship with them ended up being a form of abuse.
A priest or minister is given constant adulation for the smallest things they do. The minister can easily take on a youthful charm and use it seductively. Even if the seduction is focused on an adult, the minister can be living in an adolescent kind of world. When you do that as a priest of God, you can do immense harm.
Struggles against lust of the flesh in the imaginations of the godly are not new to the landscape of church history. St. Francis of Assisi exhorted his brothers a few years prior to his death: “Don’t canonize me too soon. I’m perfectly capable of fathering a child.” His personal remedy for “impure desires” was to plunge himself into snow banks or freezing streams. (He guaranteed the results.)
Francis knew well the weakness of the flesh. He also knew the temptations of the office. He imposed rigorous disciplines on his brotherhood, understanding the need both for external constraint and internal resolve in order to battle and overcome fleshly forces that assault the spirit. He and his clerics faithfully recited liturgical readings at regular points of the day and night; he ordered them to confess and serve and discipline one another; to do penance and to absolve; and to work with one’s hands to avoid idleness.
We cannot all take the Franciscan vows. But one can, and indeed must, recognize that humans are weak. Men (and women) need constant reminding of that weakness, before God and one another, in order to stand strong against the “heady wine” of spiritual power they exercise over others’ souls. They ought not “to accept any office that may give rise to scandal or bring about the loss of one’s soul,” echoing Francis, who was not speaking in abstractions.
“Clergy sexual abuse,” says hospital chaplain Beth Darling, “comes down to being a matter about the role, nature, and purpose of the church in this world.” Maybe the church today has built itself around a model that is flawed, a model that foists upon mere men the burden of being the sole procurers of grace and bearers of God with no one to answer to. That burden can crush a man. Churches, large and small, Catholic and Protestant, are adept at creating “stories” around personalities and office, and at living those false stories regardless of shadows that may haunt the protagonist.
In all things we, as a believing people, must uphold the promise that God himself chose human flesh to bring amnesty to his fallen race and thus imbue it with beauty and dignity and purity. Despite our temptations and weaknesses, his Spirit empowers us to overcome.