Van Ens: Why are we met with silence regarding sexual predators in churches? (column)
Pursed lips. Stony facial expressions that shout, “Who me? How can it be that sexual abuse happened under my watch?”
Church officials covering up sexual abuses in churches have used silent body language that speaks volumes about men who have bullied, hit on and exploited congregants.
The Bible uses “silent” in two ways, as when Job’s counselors “did not speak again” (Job 29:21), and, metaphorically: Two ancient villages were sacked and left “silent,” after being “laid waste” (Isaiah 15:1).
Protestants and Roman Catholics are reeling from sexual assaults within their ranks that weaken Church credibility. What’s preached is human respect; what’s practiced is the misuse of power by church officials who silence, threaten and allow sexual exploitation of men, women and children.
Why do clergy exert this corrupt power by remaining silent?
Some branches of Christianity reject consolidating power at the top through bishops. Instead, they admire powerful preachers with star-power. Checks and balances on such celebrity preachers are curtailed. A preacher’s devotion from parishioners, combined with his charismatic personality that makes him feel invincible, command authority within a church. This minister assumes sexual harassment is a benefit from his privileged status.
Roman Catholicism, in contrast, houses power at the top of an ecclesiastical ladder anchored in centuries of religious tradition. Bad conduct gets tolerated in this maze of ecclesiastical machinery greased by arcane protocols. Sexual predators get promoted or reassigned to other parishes. The clerical union protects its members.
Moreover, holy tradition enforces celibacy for priests who adopt the church family as their primary household. They don’t go home to family responsibilities, as do Protestant clergy whose attention is then diminished to the family of faith.
Roman Catholics say Jesus was unmarried. Priests must emulate his example of a celibate life. Protestants point out how this argument of priests “following Jesus’ example” produces ridiculous conclusions. Jesus was an Aramaic-speaking Jew. Must priests, therefore, be Jews who speak Aramaic?
Doesn’t it make biological sense to make celibacy optional? Early Christian history records married priests serving churches.
Conservative Protestants and Roman Catholics honor the biblical “headship” principle by which men decide and women abide by males’ decisions. The Bible is rooted in an ancient paternalistic society in which men led and women followed. But is this stratified social norm valid in contemporary society?
Practicing silence about sexual abuse in churches has rocked faith communities. Bill Hybels stepped down last April from his Willow Creek megachurch near Chicago after allegations surfaced that he repeatedly used sexual harassment to retain power. At first, Willow Creek leaders stayed silent. Then they defended their founding pastor, whose national reputation as church growth expert was unsurpassed.
However, last August “Willow Creek’s entire board of elders resigned, confessing they failed to handle the allegations appropriately, failed to hold Hybels accountable and had been ‘blinded by their faith in their founding pastor.’” (“When Christian ‘celebrities’ fall,” Shiao Chong, editor, The Banner, October 2018, p. 7)
Roman Catholic credibility has nosedived. “In the wake of the grand jury report in Pennsylvania detailing decades of abuse and cover-up in six dioceses, law enforcement officials in New York, New Jersey, Nebraska, New Mexico, Florida, Missouri and Illinois took steps toward investigating Catholic leaders’ handling of accounts of sexual abuse. (Associated Press: Religion News Service, as reported in Christian Century magazine, Oct. 24, 2018, pp. 15-16).
Silence may be golden, but it’s also destructive and wrecks lives when Christian leaders cover up sexual harassment.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.