As God's Representatives: E-pistle 02.18.11

As God's Representatives: E-pistle 02.18.11

At a city-wide clergy meeting yesterday, a visibly shaken Roman Catholic priest, leading the opening devotion, asked his interfaith colleagues for prayers for the Roman Catholic Church.

His request came in the aftermath of last week’s grand jury findings:

~ the arrest of four priests and a parochial school teacher on charges of rape, and

~ the charging of an archdiocesan official with child endangerment for, according to District Attorney Seth Williams, knowing priests were dangerous and choosing to expose them to new victims.

This is the first time in all the years since the nationwide scandal became public that a high-ranking Catholic official has faced criminal charges for covering up evidence of clergy sexual abuse. Philadelphia’s second grand jury investigating the problem issued a report last Friday critical of the archdiocese’s responses. Programs designed to assist victims have been used, instead, to protect priests and church officials. The report also expressed suspicions that priests who have been charged with abuse may still be in active service, despite the U.S. Council of Bishops policy guidelines that they be suspended. The report also suggested the grand jury had seriously considered bringing criminal charges against retired Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua.

In leading this devotion at the clergy meeting, the priest reminded us of the promise of Romans 8:

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus… If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?”

I hope my colleague was not suggesting that the church was somehow shielded or should be insulated from critical judgement and moral and legal accountability. He never fully acknowledged the wrong-doing of those “shepherds who have been entrusted to care” or the failure of the “pastors to the pastors.” He never mentioned the unbelievable harm that has been done to the children who have been abused. It is hard to understand how such wrongdoing can have been perpetrated over such a long time. Hard to imagine tolerance for a sacred role in a child’s life being perverted into abuse.

Appealing to God’s steadfast love, my colleague spoke, instead, of how sexual abuse and the hierarchy’s failures at appropriate response have hurt the church. I believe he meant how the whole church has been harmed, all the people, maybe God too… not just the institution and its leaders.

He is right of course. Instead of trusting their children to the church and the benevolent ministry of priests, parents and the public at large can now wonder if children need to be protected from priests. The extent of the abuse and leaders’ determined efforts to protect priests and limit the church’s liability are hard to countenance, much less imagine. Over and over again the facts do condemn a system that, in this respect, has proven itself incapable of working with human frailty and vulnerability. The Roman Catholic system has failed at putting in safeguards for those who are broken, and care plans for those who are injured.

Public suspicion has spread to churches beyond the Roman Catholic fold. Now clergy in denominations with no prevalence of sexual abuse and with judicatories that have effectively responded to all kinds of clergy misconduct find themselves having to do ministry in an atmosphere where their work is suspect. And the church, increasingly questioned about its relevance and realism (is it anything more than a waste of time?) can now be dismissed as dangerous.

I couldn’t help but wince that my colleague never once explicitly named the children who, entrusted to the church, were abused. Roman Catholic hierarchies ought to be questioned. And when their superiors fail to act, local priests are left to themselves to invent and implement safeguards so the public can have confidence in their ministry.

Other pastors too will have to figure out how to function effectively in an increasingly difficult situation for ministry. The whole church must struggle now under this concrete, headline example of the misuse of religious power. This breaking of sacred trust. But, for God’s sake! — literally– it is the children who looked to the church and its clergy for support and help, and received abuse– they are the victims who must be named first, whose needs must come first.

I fear, on top of the trauma, scars and perhaps life-long implications of being sexually abused, victims of the clergy, harmed by people posing as God’s representatives, often do feel separated from God’s love. Of course, God still loves them. God is always the first to cry when someone is hurt. But can we believe after being victimized, abused by a priest, many can look hopefully to the promise of God, can trust in the people of God, can in faith experience God’s love?

In the United Church of Christ, we have had few examples of clergy sexual abuse. There are multiple reasons for that, but it is in part due to our system’s decisive responses to clergy misconduct. Since the 1970s when, as a result of the women’s movement, our church began hearing of male clergy taking advantage of the power of their roles, the United Church of Christ has developed clear clergy codes of conduct and effective procedures for responding in cases of misconduct.

But rather than judge ourselves better than our Roman brothers, let us, as requested, pray for the Roman Catholic Church, beginning with its victims. And the perpetrators. And the bureaucracies who so failed them both. And the whole church whose faith is shaken and whose witness suffers.

And let us in all humility recognize the challenge of representing God. Pray for all the other, I hope less hurtful ways, that we too as Christians and the church have fallen short. It’s an incredible responsibility to serve as God’s representative in the world. Every time we fail to live up to “godliness” (whether that is abundant life, joy, truth, compassion, patience, care for one another, mercy, justice, peace…) we fail not just ourselves. Falling short of being godly, we fail those who we are called to serve AND the One who calls us to serve.

Jesus exhorts us: we must be a city set on a hill… that God’s light may not be hid… that we must show forth God’s glory…

Or I Peter puts it this way: “Let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. …You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.

See you in church,

Michael

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