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Hard Lessons about Church Authority

The Roman Catholic Church has had to face up to decades of denial and wrongdoing in recent weeks—something churches don’t do very well. Amid the dambreak of accusations concerning the sexual abuse of children by priests, the Vatican and the American Catholic hierarchy finally have acknowledged that they have years of broken souls and shattered confidences to atone for.

The Vatican’s reaction up to now, which has broadly blamed the problem on the ordination of homosexuals, simply serves to demonize a minority and avoids the issues of years of denial and lack of accountability. We can only hope that the real reasons and motivations behind this tragedy—and there are surely many, more than mere generalities can describe—are identified and earnestly addressed, and with greater speed and diligence.

A key issue here has nothing to do with sexual orientation or celibacy or even the Catholic Church. Aside from whatever perversions caused these priests to hurt young boys, the simple fact that Catholic priests—and many Protestant pastors—are seen as figures of nearly indomitable authority gave these men virtual carte blanche when it came to gaining, and then betraying, the trust of the people they abused.

We do not let ourselves off the hook, either. In the Anabaptist tradition, there have been cases of pastoral abuse, and central to each has been the same strain of misguided and deceptive power as these priests have wielded.

Suffice it to say that all churches are full of sinners, and in some cases, the worst kind of sinners. What this scandal must cause us to examine is the authority we give to pastors, or to anyone who can conceivably resort to abuse of power in such disturbing ways. Blaming gays, blaming celibacy, blaming the pope or a clatch of disconnected cardinals has not addressed the issue.

The heart of darkness in these cases is a distinctly clandestine form of power and its abuse. What will be done to keep this power from being abused again, in any of our churches?

This column was reprinted with permission from the Mennonite Weekly Review.