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Emilie Townes

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The Church as Sexual Predator

Posted: 03/19/10 12:47 PM ET

The latest round of clergy sex abuse scandal in Germany is following a sad and wearily predictable pattern: violation, capture, not taking the violation seriously and ignoring medical advice, cover up, wall of silence, more violation and abuse, capture, outrage, denials, shaming, removal from office or restrictions. I have watched this pattern through the years and listened to the stories of victims or survivors as they told them -- looking for the courage to report what had happened to the authorities -- and I have believed them and encouraged them to begin what is almost always a long and painful process of doing so. What strikes me each time is the arrogance of the church. This has no denominational or ecclesiastical boundaries. There is, far too often, an assumption of power that takes the form of the belief that the clergy can do no wrong and that each claim of abuse must be a disgruntled parishioner with either an unhealthy attraction to the cleric or a vendetta against the cleric. The church hierarchy often goes into defensive mode declaring years later when the abuse becomes public, as with this most recent case with Father Hullermann and then Archbishop Ratzinger who is now Pope Benedict, "Thirty years ago, the subject was treated very differently in society. There was a tendency to say it could be therapeutically treated."

This is not what I remember from thirty years ago. Then, victims and survivors' advocates were saying that the perpetrator needs to be disciplined by the church, removed from office, convicted if guilty, and not allowed to work with parishioners -- whatever their age. And there were deep reservations then as now about anyone being "cured" of being a sexual predator.

This is what has troubled me over the years: the church's sanction of sexual predation. I cannot think of a more grave violation of trust and faith. The church and its clergy and lay professionals are, rightfully, held to a higher standard of conduct. With ordination or consecration, we accept a mantle of responsibility for people's souls and bodies. We are not to violate or abuse people, but rather walk with them in their journeys of faith and guide them as they seek to discover what form of discipleship they are being called to, challenge them to grow into that discipleship, and comfort them when life comes crashing in with death, catastrophe, and sorrow. We are to teach them the gift of laughter as people of a God who delights in merriment but is also more than able to judge and to meter our punishments for our sins.

In light of the divine mandate we have to cherish one another, there is no way to sanction the sexual predation that occurs in far too many of our churches. And this is made worse when we think that this violation, this sin, this evil is confined to one ecclesiastical body or one nation or one gender. We all have feet of clay and are capable of violation. The point is that we work each day to avoid doing so. Yes, there are temptations when one is a religious leader. Many folks are attracted to the power of our office and the ways in which we inhabit that power. But our job, no, our mandate as religious leaders is be the responsible leader who does not take advantage of charisma and either slip into or walk into becoming a sexual predator. Love has nothing to do with the dynamic of abuse: it is about power, control, and our unwillingness to control ourselves. Abusers will at times declare, "They wanted it," "They tempted me," "I couldn't (or can't) help myself," "I really love them," and so forth. These are poor excuses for being a sexual predator. And when the church turns a blind eye to this evil by transferring the cleric to another church, diocese, city, or region rather than reporting them to legal authorities and pulling them out of their office and getting him or her therapeutic help, the church becomes a sexual predator as well.

Our society is also complicit if there are not laws that give victims and survivors legal recourse that is not easier than jumping over boulders as they seek justice. When we fail to provide sound legal alternatives when clergy violate the trust that is placed in them, we as religious bodies and as societies are saying that we deeply devalue our children and women in many ways. The good news is that we have made progress since the first time a victim told me her story and asked me to believe her because no one else did -- she was referring to the cleric's immediate supervisor. We still have a good ways to go, but as we as communities of faith decide that we must take up this work and refuse to sanction sexual predation and refuse to become sexual predators ourselves, we can and must train clergy and lay professionals about the giftedness of our bodies as well as our souls. True, this is a large task, given the centuries of bad sexual theology and spirituality we have amassed that encourage us to practice spiritual apartheid with our bodies and souls, but each year we move towards a healthier sexual ethic that demands of us to truly respect each other and one of the ways to do so is by respecting our bodies. Denials, feigned innocence, cover-ups, arrogance, and grand assumptions of power and control should not be the fast we choose.