If we say we follow Him, then we should — personally.
New International Translation
Then the word of the Lord came to me, “Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel. Prophesy and tell them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Woe to you shepherds of Israel, who only take care of yourselves! Shepherds are to care for their flocks! You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool, and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not feed the flock. You have not strengthened the weak, healed the sick, bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays, or searched for the lost. Instead, you have ruled them with violence and cruelty.
Yet again there is news of another clergy scandal: this one comes from a Grand Jury investigation of six Roman Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania. The details are shameful — in the extent of the abuse and in the evidence of cover-ups on a massive scale. Evil shepherds preyed upon their flocks “with violence and cruelty” repeatedly over decades; countless innocents suffered, countless others knew and said nothing; many were in positions to stop the perpetrators and prevent further abuse but did not. What was meant to be a sanctuary was turned into a charnel house.
There is no excuse for what occurred. I pray that Pope Francis will act swiftly and meaningfully. But the harm has been done. And it affects all who follow the Lord Jesus — not just Roman Catholics. For people outside of the faith, Rome represents all of Christendom; like it or not, we are lumped together as “believers.”
Further, we don’t have to look far to see evidence of worthless and wicked shepherds within our own denominational flocks of whatever sort we may be. They are out there. Perhaps you have encountered one or more of them yourself; I have.
How do we rightly respond to these outrages? What can we do to prevent abuses from recurring? How can we speak of “the Good News” in the face of such wickedness?
We can begin by speaking out against abuses — all abuses: physical, emotional, spiritual, financial — and demanding that perpetrators are held accountable. This does not mean a transfer to a different parish, or to a teaching position, or a few weeks in a cosy private “sanitarium,” or the publication of a tell-all book and author’s royalties! We have the right and responsibility to insist on genuine consequences, not rewards, for misconduct.
From those who have been given much, much will be demanded; and from those who have been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.
~ Luke 12:48b
Too often villainous clergy receive far more forgiveness than their victims receive justice. Those who withheld absolution from others call in Christ’s name for “mercy” the instant they are apprehended — and are immediately treated as repentant sinners — and so avoid anything remotely resembling contrition; while those they exploited rarely hear an admission of wrong-doing nor receive public apologies: instead, their years of silent suffering are compounded by the ongoing silence of the “corporation.”
Is the Church’s rush to forgive a manifestation of the spirit of generous Christianity, or a desire to sweep the dirt under the rug? Is not the granting (or withholding) of forgiveness the right of the one who was harmed?
We cannot pretend that crimes have not been committed, and to do so makes us complicit: we are causing further pain and suffering to those who have been hurt. Our admission is part of the work of healing: beginning with honestly admitting what has happened.
The next step is taking responsibility for the ways in which we have, as is said in the General Confession, “failed to be an obedient church.” Have we handed over the work of Christian witness and community to “the professionals”?
Remember that we, the people, together form The Body of Christ at work in the world. Every member is called to play a part. Yet, too often, the clergy seem to serve as the community’s Official Christians: the ones who visit the sick and the shut ins, who sit by the side of the dying, who comfort the mourners, and counsel the troubled and the seekers; salaried workers who do what the rest of the people don’t want to do.
It becomes a pattern, this handing-over of responsibilities, and we begin to trust that all is humming along just fine “because the pastor says so.” We ignore problems, discount warnings, refuse to listen to criticism. We surrender our call to follow the Lord to paid professionals, and grow lax in our faith and forgetful of our obligations; preferring what is easy to what is right.
Until something happens. And then we are suddenly, terribly awake.
It is human nature to look for a pattern when things go wrong. Seeking to make our churches safe, we try to establish a prototype “wrong’un” and then remove all who fit that template from positions of authority. The problem is, the temptation to do evil rather than good crosses all boundaries of gender, race, color, and creed. The corrosive, corrupting influence of power can taint women as well as men, Protestants as well as Catholics, Asians as well as Anglos, black as well as white, gay as well as straight.
In short, there is no quick and simple fix, no easily-identifiable villainous type/s that we can oust from our midst.
A particular danger to this yearning for an easy solution has appeared in discussions regarding the clergy scandals in Pennsylvania. If the churches would just clear out all of the gay men, so one argument goes, everything would be fine. Equally it has been said that there would be no more problems if Rome would allow married clergy. Both of these simplistic solutions ignore the many infidelities and assaults perpetrated by (married) Protestant clergy, and that the vast majority of pedophiles are heterosexual.
As with all crimes of sexual violence, the desire is to hurt and debase. The perpetrators exploit the weak and vulnerable, exerting a hold over their victims with shame and secrecy. The common denominator is the lust for power and control — it is never about attraction or affection.
Prevention comes from vigilance.
Naiveté and negligence contribute directly to the types of criminal tragedies as those in Pennsylvania, as well as other wicked and wrongful conduct throughout our churches. When we hand over our work of being a Christian to anyone, we are complicit in whatever harm occurs.
If you see something, say something.
Each time these terrible events make the news we are told that there had been long-standing reports and rumors about misconduct. Yet no one took action, no one insisted on interviews or audits or assessments — until there was a veritable avalanche of evidence, or a life was lost. It should never take that long. The whole Body of Christ must be committed to ensuring that all who come to us are safe.
This doesn’t mean we view everyone around us with suspicion, but it does mean we are alert and attentive to what goes on in our communities. It is the ministry of all believers to care for the weak and vulnerable, to work for justice, to comfort the sick and sorrowing; to seek the truth, and proclaim God’s grace.
If we do these things, the Light of Christ will shine — and banish the darkness.
“Repair My Church.”
~ the Divine message that inspired Saint Francis of Assisi
Despite the most careful and wise counsel and attention, evil can often find a way, as it has done of late. We cannot undo what has happened, but we can insist on restitution and overt, obvious marks of repentance by those who committed these travesties. And the responsibility extends to all of us.
It cannot be — it must not be — “back to business as usual” for any Christians, of whatever persuasion. We must look at our ways of doing “church;” and the ways in which each of us is called to be a member of the Body of Christ. Do we do our part, or hand the work of the Lord over to the paid professionals?
Lord Christ our Redeemer, we have been called to follow You; guide each of us to do so with wisdom, and power, and grace. Give us ears to hear unspoken cries, give us eyes to see unwept tears, make us mindful of needs and troubles close at hand, light a holy fire within us so that we will honor you not only in our words, but in the daily living of our lives. Amen.
Virtual hugs and real-time blessings,
Who can you bless and encourage today?