Clergy Abuse Overwhelmed a Pope: It Ought to Be Exposed

The legacy of clergy abuse: is this what church ministry looks like?
No. This is what betrayal looks like.

By Wendy Murray

I recently watched a Frontline documentary titled “Secrets of the Vatican” highlighting the daunting challenges facing Pope Francis. His predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, resigned from the office a year ago today (Feb. 28, 2013) under a cloud of corruption and the stench of unresolved rampant sex-abuse cases. The documentary highlights the challenge Pope Francis faces in the unspoken mandate to clean up the Church, most notably the shameful sordid legacy of covering up of rampant sex abuse over many decades that has destroyed lives.

The problem of abuse and cronyism is not exclusive to Catholicism. Evangelical Boz Tchividjian asserts unequivocally that sex abuse among evangelical clergy is ‘worse’ than that within the Catholic church. Tchividijian — a former child-abuse victim; child-abuse prosecutor; founder and executive director of GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment); law professor; author and — it’s worth noting — Billy Graham’s grandson; speaks and writes extensively on issues related to sex abuse within the evangelical faith community. “Christian mission field is a ‘magnet’ for sexual abusers,” he says. “The Protestant culture is defined by independence”– the implication being that this independence, when it comes to confronting pathologies in ministry, sets the table for little if any accountability.

A report published by the Baptist General Convention of Texas (2000) noted “the incidence of sexual abuse by clergy has reached ‘horrific proportions.’” Studies revealed that 40 percent had acknowledged “sexually inappropriate behavior.”

Just this week news broke of a  Wheaton College professor sentenced for child pornography; allegations of rampant sex abuse in the community Jesus People, USA. while in early in February Bob Jones University abruptly halted its sex abuse probe undertaken by an independent entity (Tchividijian’s GRACE) on the cusp of  issuing the report of its findings. 

Yet in my research I have found, alarmingly, that when someone confronts this dark side and asks for help, the church often dismisses them or ignores them. Worse, sometimes those in leadership cast aspersions back upon the abused, traumatizing them again. I have written elsewhere about my own struggles in a marriage to a pastor and my futile attempt to get help from the church he served. The church protected him and did not take up my cause or help me nor in any way. This was a betrayal of my humanity. Worse, it was a betrayal of my soul — the part of me that came alive through Christ and lived through Christ and to which I had remitted my life’s allegiance. I believed in the church. I gave my life to it.  Dante’s Inferno reserves the deepest, lowest and most irredeemable circle of hell for those guilty of such betrayal of trust. They are as low in hell as it gets: they gaze up to Hell’s towering walls.” 

Well-known author and speaker Eric Metaxas spoke recently at the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) annual convention in Nashville, where — as one writer noted — he “sternly warned against fatalistic voices [within the evangelical community] that counsel passivity.” He was referring to passivity when it comes to addressing broader cultural issues. But I echo the rebuke when it comes to passivity in dealing with clergy abuse. Metaxas says,“Christians are often theologically sloppy. If you care about saving souls . . . we have to care about justice.”

There is plenty of injustice to go around when it comes to the church’s dealings in this fallen world, both near and far. Those who have suffered at the hands of abusive clergy are near–right next door — and their violation ought to be redressed.  The believing community is accountable for defending them — or for not doing so. (I speak here to the mostly-male leadership.) This abdication of responsibility resulted, in the case of the Catholic church, in a level of debasement sufficient to overthrow the Pope. He surrendered Saint Peter’s keys and went away.

The church, Protestant and Catholic, rightly or wrongly, possesses power over human souls.  To ignore the hidden and rampant pathology of abuse gives reign to toxicity and poisons the souls of those who need healing as well as those who give it a pass. It makes a mockery of Jesus, whose holy name the church proclaims.


About Wendy Murray

Wendy Murray is a veteran and award-winning journalist. She served as associate editor and Senior Writer at Christianity Today magazine and has written extensively for other publications such as Books & Culture and The Christian Century. She has written 11 books.