Ever since the Roman Catholic Priest Sexual Abuse scandal broke a few years ago the topic of sexual abuse at the hands of clergy has been front and center. It has been the topic of books, articles, lectures, conversation, and jokes. We have speculated why sexual abuse at the hands of clergy happens and have come up with more questions than answers. The recent news of a well-known, well respected cleric being under investigation for sexual abuse and taking his own life and a Youth Minister from Lewiston, Maine sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy proves, once again:
1.Clergy sexual misconduct is not simply a problem for our Roman Catholic brothers and sister. At one point research was reporting that Protestant clergy sexual misconduct was as prevalent.
2. Clergy must take care of themselves by maintaining well-established boundaries.
Clergy sexual misconduct transcends denominational affiliation. We know very little about why people abuse other people except to say that there’s a high proportion of perpetrators who have been victims themselves. We know that sexual predators abuse over and over again. Abusers, more often than not, do not simply give up offending like someone might give up smoking or drinking. If I learned anything from my days spent working at a Rape Crisis Center, perpetrators don’t stop offending, they just get good at not getting caught again. There is room for redemption if the perpetrator takes proper steps, but that’s another blog for another time. For every victim that boldly comes forward there are countless others who suffer in silence because of the stigmas associated with being a victim of sexual misconduct.
Another important lesson that still rings true every time I read or hear a story of sexual abuse is that when that abuse is at the hands of clergy the issues are compounded. That the abuse is not merely at the hands of a trusted family member or friend but that the abuse is intimately connected to God. As clergy we represent something much larger than we are and much larger than the institutional church is. Often times when we walk into a room we walk in as a representative of the Divine, or as my friend KBW puts it, as an “Agent of God.” The collar, pulpit, and other symbols of the office give us, in some situations, especially with vulnerable people who are suffering, ultimate authority.
Authority like the kind yielded to us comes with ultimate responsibility. When we yield that responsibility we do more harm than good, thus violating founder of the Methodist movement, brother John Wesley’s first rule, “Do no harm.”
Clergy Sexual Misconduct happens for a lot of reasons, just like misconduct at the hands of anybody. That said, in large part, Clergy Sexual Misconduct happens because of a violation of boundaries. As leaders, charged with the care of God’s people, it is our job to set boundaries and uphold those boundaries. Innocently bending the rules, over time, can lead to misconduct of all kinds. Please read, it does not always lead to misconduct, but it can. Not taking time for one’s family, friends, and hobbies--life outside of “Rev. Soandso” or “Pastor Whatshisname.” It is easy to turn the work of the clergy into a way of life, never turning off the identity you claim as a member of the clergy with the rest of you. Disaster strikes when everything you are is interconnected with the people you are called to serve among.
I do not pretend to make excuses for clergy who violate the sacred covenant that God has made with all of creation and of which we are called to point to day in and day out as a sign that God loves the world so much that he sent His own son to live and work among us and who, in His death and resurrection delivered us from death to eternal life. I do acknowledge, however, that we are all human and as humans sin, we mar the covenant which God has made with us. We, though, hold out hope that we can turn back to God in repentance.
I believe we also have to look at the covenant which we all enter into as clergy, as well. In my denomination there is a covenant we agree to when we are licensed, commissioned, and/or ordained. This covenant includes a lot of things but the most basic message is that we will take care of one another, support one another, pray for one another, and hold each other accountable. Perhaps I am an eternal optimist or perhaps I put to much faith in ecumenism but I believe this covenant with one another transcends boundaries that have been drawn in generations past. So, part of me has to ask myself, “what could I have done differently to bear the light of Christ to these brothers who have violated the clergy covenant?”
Our response to these two cases and the plethora of other sexual misconduct cases perpetrated at the hands of clergy-people, should not be the easy one of simply writing them off, admonishing the good they have done, and turning our backs on them as if they no longer exist. Our response should be one of loving accountability. We cannot forget what they have done and need to speak the truth around the pain they have caused. We, their colleagues, need to be the first to remember they are human beings who have committed a sin, albeit a very large sin, but a sin nonetheless. I would be the last to give them the keys to another church or allow them to continue to hold the title “Reverend” but our covenant with each other and with God reminds us that God loves them and we are called to speak truth and hope to their pain and brokenness.