(Originally published in PULP)
It seems almost cliché to write about religious sexual abuse scandals in a faith-oriented column, but sometimes news stories simply demand a response.
First of all, I want to make clear that, as a leader in a faith community, I’m personally both saddened and outraged every time I hear about another innocent soul falling victim to a sexual predator who uses the context of the ministry to cloak themselves in protective immunity. With every new revelation of such abuses, my question isn’t why these predators aren’t defrocked; it’s why they’re not sitting in a cell somewhere.
That said, I think some of us are focusing our righteous anger in the wrong direction. Yes, priests and other religious leaders who exploit their position to take advantage of anyone in their congregation, be they of age or not, have no business in ministry. And yes, those in positions of greater power who knowingly obfuscate the scale of the problem, making it even worse by moving guilty priests around, should also be removed. But simply to direct our ill feelings toward these individuals is to ignore the deeper, more disturbing reality.
By its very nature, church leadership roles present extraordinary opportunities for abuse. Few other jobs offer such a combination of power, lack of accountability and social pressure to present oneself a certain way. People trust ministers – or at least have done so historically – because of their positions. It’s assumed that it takes a special kind of person to accept a call to act as a servant of a church and its followers.
The problem is that, although this is generally true, it also is an imperfect system. True, some potential predators see ministry as a system waiting to be taken advantage of, but more often than not, I am of the opinion that the systems of religion themselves are guilty of creating these monsters, and not just letting them slip through the cracks.
Imagine being told that, for the rest of your life, people will look at you as if you’re set apart, different. In some ways, they will hold an unnatural admiration for you, but this same perception also will distance you from the rest of the culture. Add to this that, in some cases, you’re expected never to act on your natural sexual impulses, or even the innate craving for emotional and physical intimacy, all sexual acts aside.
Then you’re given a uniform and are afforded authority over people that, by its very nature, places them in a vulnerable state, while also being drawn to you. And though it’s assumed you’re carrying out the duties assigned to you by the higher authorities from day to day, the level of oversight generally doesn’t match up with the level of responsibility you have.
We’ve all heard the stories about how lots of men “turn gay” when sent to prison for long periods of time. It’s not that these guys actually are suddenly more attracted to men than women, but for lack of a woman, a guy will have to do. This is not uncommon throughout the animal kingdom, with same-sex animals pairing off when it’s the only option.
So is it that these priests who molest boys are actually gay? Some may be, and may likely aren’t, in the sense that a homosexual act does not a gay person make. But the system itself places young boys in the trust of male priests all the time, and lo and behold, the combination of personal repression and otherworldly expectations find an outlet, though in a chilling and violent way.
An immediate reaction to such moral tragedies is to clamp down, enacting “zero tolerance” policies and throwing the so-called book at perpetrators. And although such action might make us all feel better for the moment, it’s not likely to change the behavior of a person who is already risking everything they have in the world for what amounts to a licentious thrill.
I believe that the biggest problem is the repression. When we ask people to be something they’re not by nature, those repressed dimensions find a way of seeping through the tiniest of cracks. And when they do, it’s usually not pretty. If we were actually more open about allowing our spiritual leaders to accept that their sexuality is actually a beloved gift from God rather than a dirty thing to be despised, it would go a long way toward allowing them to be what they actually are: human beings.
Not only that, but it also would give those followers within the church permission to accept as much about themselves, hopefully coming to realize that healthy sexuality expressed in mutually consenting relationships is as God meant it to be. Otherwise, none of us would be here!
From the first stories in the Bible, we’re wrongly taught to hate our bodies and to understand our sexuality as detestable and wrong. But as I’ve heard it said many times before, how’s that working out for you?
Couldn’t it be that reading stories like those about Adam and Eve could tell us why we tend to view our bodies with shame, rather than taking from it that we should hate our physical selves? Couldn’t it be that, if we are indeed created in the image of a Creator, our impulses and urges are supposed to be there, to be used and expressed in wonderfully creative ways?
If we can learn anything from history it’s that nature wins over the will of humanity every time. We may like to think that having the appearance of control over our sexuality makes us more highly evolved, or even somehow closer to God. Ironically, it’s those same God-given impulses that, when repressed find other ways into the light.
The problem is that, by then, it’s too late, and the shame continues.