Tuesday, January 31, 2012

10 Years Later: Clergy Response to the Sex Abuse Scandal (Comment)

This January marked the 10th anniversary of the clergy sex abuse scandal that rocked the foundations of the Roman Catholic Church and other Christian denominations. 

What began as a series of news reports in the Boston Globe about six Roman Catholic priests and the cover-up arranged by Cardinal Law led to accusations against Christian leaders across the United States and internationally.

Ten years after the scandal erupted, clergy sexual abuse has been reported everywhere from Austria to Australia, and while it remains the case that only a small percentage of Christian clergy perpetrate sexual abuse, the effects of this small number of individuals is felt, at some level, by every Christian and by clergy trying to understand what the scandal means for them as leaders.

While they don't make news headlines, the majority of priests and pastors across denominations do not commit abuse, and this group of individuals take their vocation very seriously. They dedicate their lives to bringing Christianity's hope to their communities, to allowing God's light to permeate the darkness.

What effect, then, has the sexual abuse scandal in the Church had on them?

Clergy realize that one of the most prominent ramifications of the scandal is the way in which the safety of the Church is no longer assumed. 

Ten years ago, many people, including clergy, assumed the church was a safe place for all people, including children, just as prior to Sept. 11, a certain amount of airport security was assumed in the United States that we no longer take for granted, as we remove our shoes at security checkpoints, stand in full-body scanners and submit to questioning by TSA officials. 

Likewise, clergy ordained prior to the sex abuse scandal remember a time when the Church was an assumed safe place.

Today, that assumption is not made in the same way.

As a result, many clergy have felt disempowered, disheartened and spiritually bereft during the past decade. 

Discovering a colleague abused another person raises basic questions for them about who to trust and how to balance punishment with rehabilitation when dealing with the offender. 

They also wonder how best to assist victims and whether victims will ever be able to trust them and the Church given their previous experiences.

Clergy also face the ramifications of false accusations. 

Though most people who accuse another of misconduct tell the truth, when a pastor hears about colleagues falsely accused many feel afraid for their own futures:

What if I am accused of something I did not do?

What if I become the person who engages in misconduct?

What if my bishop or superior protects an abuser?

As a result, many clergy worry in a way they never did 20 years ago about whether or not it's okay to have a conversation with a parishioner and close the door to their office; they worry about whether or not to hug a young child; they worry about the trustworthiness of their colleagues, superiors and the church at large.

The past 10 years have allowed clergy to witness the truth about sexual misconduct, but, contrary to what the biblical text says, that truth hasn't always set them free.

As Susan Brison, a survivor of a sexual assault and attempted murder, has written, "It has been hard for me, as a philosopher, to learn the lesson that knowledge isn't always desirable, that the truth doesn't always set you free. Sometimes, it fills you with incapacitating terror and, then, uncontrollable rage."

While this truth has a deep and abiding effect on many clergy, one of the things I have noticed about my colleagues is that they refuse to let terror and rage have the last word. 

Seeking, as their vocation calls them to do, to bring light to even the darkest places, many clergy sought to restore confidence in the Church through facing the reality of sexual misconduct and educating themselves. 

Today, many engage in a variety of training sessions designed for themselves, lay leaders and congregants. 

Across denominations, they attend programs like Safe Church that train them about appropriate interactions with the people entrusted to their care. 

These programs allow clergy to recognize the signs of misconduct, so that they can prevent sexual abuse in themselves or their peers before harm occurs to another human being.

And hopefully, that knowledge becomes power. 

It becomes the light that shines in the darkness. Because while clergy can't return to a time when sexual misconduct was not part of the Christian vocabulary or ignore the reality that leaders have harmed many in the Church, sometimes in ways so deep that healing is never fully experienced in this life, they want to assist survivors and prevent further abuse however they can. 

In that conviction, I believe, lies the hope, and the future, of the Church.