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Sexual Abuse in the Roman Church

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March 22, 2010 – Pope Benedict has recently delivered a letter addressed to Roman Catholics in Ireland, apologizing for the sexual offenses perpetrated by a cadre of Catholic priests there.  The news of abuse by the Roman priesthood of Ireland fits into the worldwide trend of sexual exploitation on the part of the Roman Catholic clergy.  The horror of this debacle has a flock of commentators all its own whose thoughts and opinions have been amply expressed in many different fora.  I have no interest in joining the ranks of those who are condemning the Roman church on behalf of the victims, not because I feel that the condemnation is unjust (it isn’t) but because I feel that the condemnation has been adequately voiced.  There are two observations concerning this situation which I have not heard expressed though, and it is those observations which I will publish here.  The first is in regards to the disservice done to the offending priests themselves by the Roman church; the second is in regards to the propensity towards sexual abuse as it relates to the celibacy rule of the church.

Much has been said on the topic of the betrayal of trust evidenced by the Roman Catholic Church through this scandal.  Victims’ advocates have rightly blasted the church for allowing such abominations to continue without stepping in.  The failure to immediately expel priests guilty of child molestation is a betrayal of the trust of parents.  Unfortunately, very little has been said about the betrayal of the trust of the priests themselves.  By continually relocating offending priests instead of holding them accountable for their actions, Catholic bishops not only perpetuated the crime itself, but enabled the criminals.  One of the functions of the church, as it was instituted by Christ, is to confront sinful behavior within its ranks.  This function serves to eradicate sin not only for the sake of the victims of sinful behavior but for the sake of the perpetrators of the sinful behavior themselves.  To allow an addict to continue in his addiction is not in any way loving to him.  To ignore sinful behavior is to give tacit approval to that behavior.  To neglect a person’s self-destructive actions is to assist in the destruction of the person.  This is a direct violation of the instruction of James: “let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (5:20).  We have on record the testimony of a number of priests who confessed their sinful abuses to their bishops, hoping to receive some kind of help, only to find themselves reassigned to another parish.  Such a deliberate refusal to deal with sin is unconscionable.  It is time to call not only for the defrocking of the guilty priests but of the even guiltier bishops.

Swiss priest and author, Father Hans Kung of the University of Tubingen, in an open letter to Pope Benedict, outlines four issues which he feels ought to be dealt with in regards to this sexual scandal in the church.  In the second of the four issues he states, “The celibacy law obliges the priest to abstain from all forms of sexual activity, though their sexual impulses remain virulent, and thus the danger exists that these impulses might be shifted into a taboo zone and compensated for in abnormal ways.”  This concept seems to be a fairly common explanation for the sinful actions of these priests and it is certainly a reasonable supposition.  As a convinced Protestant, I have never understood the logic that requires a clergyman to remain celibate.  Scripture is very clear on the legitimacy and blessing of marriage for all church members, including the clergy.  Nevertheless, I recognize that celibacy is a legitimate gifting for certain believers and to suggest that celibacy might lead to a dangerous situation in which “impulses might be shifted into a taboo zone and compensated for in abnormal ways” undermines the legitimacy of the authentic gifting.  To be sure, to impose celibacy on those who do not have that gift would be unwise, but is it fair to say that it will necessarily lead to sexual abuse?  Wouldn’t it be wiser to simply trace these sexual sins back to their undebatable source in the depravity of the human heart and leave it at that?  Any further speculation as to cause, however reasonable in theory, runs the risk of demonizing a gift of the Holy Spirit.  And that is dangerous ground upon which to walk.

As I reflect upon these things, it is terrifyingly easy for me to slip into feelings of self-righteousness.  The revelations of these sexual abuses make me feel justified in my repudiation of Roman dogma and practice.  It is terrifyingly easy, that is, until I recall the sex scandals of our Protestant denominations and realize that we are all prone to our own failings.  May the Lord deliver us all from temptation and restore to himself the glory that is due his name in every church, whether Roman Catholic or Protestant.

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