How Should We Understand Clergy Abuse?

I am not sure whether I am qualified to write this article or biased and unqualified, because I am a pastor. I am not Catholic, nor do I think the problem is uniquely Catholic. I want to address instances of clerical sexual abuse and instances when pastors fall because of infidelity, sexual harassment, financial sin or any other sin for that matter. All of these have been in the news, and all of them do damage beyond their immediate victims. So I will offer a perspective, not an excuse.

The biggest problems with pastors or priests is that they are human. This is actually a very big problem. Every human outside of Jesus is born with a sinful nature. So anything is possible where evil is concerned. Clergy are rightly held at a higher level of moral expectation than everybody else. They are to set the example of a person following Christ. Like Paul, many have left behind a misguided life and are changed by the Holy Spirit to someone who can be an example and say so. Still their human nature remains.

The widespread occurrence of priests sexually abusing boys in particular can also be added to a frequent occurrence of alcoholism as problems within the Catholic clergy. Pope Francis blames “clericalism”, which is priest covering for other priests; but you cannot dismiss two other factors.

The most obvious is the celibacy requirement. Celibacy wasn’t always a requirement for the Catholic clergy. Biblically it connects with Paul saying,

I wish that all were as myself am. But each one has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single, as I am.

1 Corinthians 7:7-8

Paul understood his ability to be asexual as a spiritual gift. It is gift that not many people have. Certainly there are less who have this ability than there is need for priests, especially among the young. Sexual desire is not ungodly. In fact , in Timothy Paul warns of deceitful spirits that “forbid marriage and require abstinence.”

The requirement of abstinence creates both a clergy shortage and men trying to be what they are not. Some of these problems link to the loneliness and sexual frustration, but there is a deeper problem.

Many families put a very high value of having a priest in the family. This pressure, especially when placed on a family member who is already having problems of sexual orientation, attracts those wrestling with homosexual and pedophilia urges to an environment that they hope will fix them. Instead in places them in a position to abuse others. Clericalism then allowed it to happen again and again. The Catholic church is not the only place where problems can exist.

Recent high profile cases of clerical infidelity have made the news. In these cases I would blame a number of factors: a particular pastor’s pride, admiring and available women, perhaps a false belief that God wouldn’t let them fall or that they will be readily forgiven and allowed to continue in their role, their sinful human nature and Satan knowing that he can create more damage than usual. I expect that those who fall are also warned and deterred by the Holy Spirit, but such protection is not absolute.

The damage created by pastoral sins is great. First their family is crushed as any other would be, but this is more public. Then the ministry of the congregation is brought into question by both those within and those outside. These sins become a reason to fall away or a roadblock to those who are presented the Gospel. If pastors can fall, is there any legitimacy to the claims of the Gospel?

For this reason there is a long list of requirements for becoming a pastor in the Bible (1 Timothy 3). Many should never have been put in that position. Though not a pastor, Mike Pence was criticized for saying that he would not be alone with another woman. He had borrowed this idea from Billy Graham who maintained the same boundaries. Both realized that even the accusation of sexual impropriety could do a world of damage.

We should all be upset when clergy give offense like this. I am especially upset because it makes my job harder. Nothing should be covered up. No one should be allowed to continue in their jobs. Forgiveness by God and others is tied to genuine repentance. But there should also be this level of understanding. Clergy are not sinless human beings. They are normal human beings, put in a position of unusual pressure. Satan and God are in a war. The aim of God is giving people eternal life through the death of Jesus. The promise is real. Satan’s aim is to minimize God’s success. He can do nothing more. Causing offense through the fall of a priest or pastor causes a great deal of damage. At least it does if we let it.

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