Rightly or wrongly, fairly or not, our comrades in the Roman Catholic church are taking quite a beating in the global press over the latest round in the clergy sex abuse scandal. Vatican officials close to Pope Benedict are comparing this latest eruption of outrage and accusations to the ancient persecution of the church in the Roman era, even to the Nazi Holocaust (a very regrettable comparison). But if there is any truth to the claim that some in the secular, liberal and modern press are too eager to seize any stick with which to beat the church, that pales in comparison to the culture of cover-ups and secrecy in the church that each new round of the scandal seems to uncover. And that pales in relation to what too many people have suffered by way of abuse, and continue to suffer as abuse delivers on its long-lasting legacy of damage to body, soul, spirit and relationships.
I can hear my comrades howling over the fact that the same press that lambastes their hierarchy for sexual misconduct turns around and nearly celebrates the sexual misconduct of certain politicians and celebrities. Point taken. But the church is being taken to the woodshed not just for engaging in the very conduct that it condemns (the politicians and celebrities don’t build careers on making moral prescriptions); the problem is also with the cover-up, which celebrities, by their very job description, don’t engage in, either. Most importantly, there is the matter of predation, the vulnerability of the victims, and broken trust. Whatever one might say about philandering or swinging actors and politicians, these are not as regularly the features of their misconduct.
This is not just a Roman Catholic thing. Other Christian denominations and communions have their stories and histories of abuse, perhaps even of some cover-ups. It is a power thing. And religious power can be an especially fertile field for the abuse of many kinds of power. In systems of church leadership you have a heady, powerful brew that can either lead to the eternal maturity, glory and empowerment of eternal human beings, or you have a web of expertise, domination, attention, intimacy, dependency and symbolism that can ensnare, exploit and infantilize people. The difference depends in part upon how the clergy see themselves. Are we seeking honors and satisfaction from God, or from people? Has our spiritual and theological development served to enlighten us to the fact that we are each “the chief of sinners,” or have we come to feel entitled and superior? Are we using the power that comes with our calling to glorify God or to aggrandize ourselves and our institutions? Do we even see this power as something to share and to cultivate in others, or is it a zero-sum game by which we gather power at other people’s expense?
The clergy sex abuse scandal occurs at the point where sexuality, spirituality and ecclesiastical power meet. Clergy, how are we doing at growing up and being sexually mature people? Or are we taking out our immaturity upon our congregations either by denigrating sexuality, or idolizing it? Within our internal “wiring,” sexuality and spirituality are only a hair’s breadth apart. How are we doing at the balancing act of affirming the goodness of our created sexuality, while submitting it to our spirituality? The latter should direct and define the former, not vice versa.
How are we doing with issues of intimacy and self-disclosure? Do we appreciate just how much intimacy is already involved when we share our faith lives, our questions and our beliefs with other people, especially when we pray with them? As for our temptations and struggles, do we have a “confessor” to whom we can take them? If not, why should anyone bring their temptations and struggles to us? After all, we of all people should know that we are “the chief of sinners.” The totality of our lives and souls cannot be an open book to everyone. But between all the persons in our lives, is all of our life then an open book to someone? Besides God, of course? God made the church for a reason.
Mathew Swora, April 6, 2010