Exposing Corruption: Good for the Church?

BY JOHN MONTAGUE

Writing in the New York Times earlier this week, columnist Nicholas Kristof noted:

The Vatican believes that this newspaper and other news organizations have been unfair and overzealous in excavating the church’s cover-ups of child rape. I see the opposite. No organization has done more to elevate the moral stature of the Catholic Church in the United States than The Boston Globe. Its groundbreaking 2002 coverage of abuse by priests led to reforms and by most accounts a significant reduction in abuse. Catholic kids are safer today not because of the cardinals’ leadership, but because of The Boston Globe’s.

Indeed. Kristof makes an excellent point, also observing that Jesus would never have participated in protecting a priest who molested children. In fact, Jesus had strong words for just such a priest:

It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin. (Luke 17:2)

Yikes. And Paul tells us that we should uncover and expose corruption when we find it:

Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for it is light that makes everything visible. (Eph. 5:11-14)

Why is it, then, that many in the church continue to believe that covering up such scandals for the sake of “the church” or “the church’s image” is a good thing? Bishops in the Catholic Church coerced families into silence regarding sexual abuse by (1) lying to victims’ families, telling them that they were the only ones who had ever complained about the priest in question and promising that they would investigate, something that rarely happened;[1] and (2) exhorting the families to consider the interests of the church above their own.[2] The twisted logic that purports to put the interest of the church as an institution above that of the humans who actually constitute the church is not isolated to the Catholic Church, though the the pain of its inevitable conclusion is perhaps most obvious there.

I have heard leaders in Protestant churches talk about the importance of downplaying improprieties, overlooking sins, or generally not asking too many questions about a sensitive topic. All of this is supposed to be for the “good of the church.” Well, I think the reputation of the Catholic Church in the wake of revelations of widespread child abuse tells us where this line of thinking ends. Imagine if, instead, the first bishop to hear of child rape had investigated and, upon finding it to be true, publicly denounced the priest, turned him over to the civil authorities, and let the state press criminal charges. Covering up the crime only led that priest (and so many others like him) to cause infinitely more pain that can never be erased, despite the millions of dollars the Catholic Church continues to pour into this black hole.

Sin is wrong wherever it is found and whoever commits it, and no one — most especially those who claim to be church leaders — should be allowed to sweep it under the rug where, far from disappearing, it grows into a cancer that has the power to devour entire congregations, or even denominations. Like a cancer, such sin must be rooted out wherever it is found. And also as with a cancer, Christians need to be vigilant for its symptoms and not ignore them when they appear.

Christians should lead the way in uncovering abuse within the church, and when corruption is found, it should be exposed for all the world to see. Truly, the church as a whole will be better for it.

[1]Anson Shupe, In the Name of All That’s Holy: A Theory of Clergy Malfeasance (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1995), 79-116.

[2]Peter C. Phan, “A New Way of Being Church: Perspectives from Asia,” Governance, Accountability, and the Future of the Catholic Church (Francis Oakley & Bruce Russett, eds., 2004), 181.

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9 thoughts on “Exposing Corruption: Good for the Church?

  1. I think that churches would probably be more effective and godly places if these things were not buried, certainly, but I think the trap here is committing to a new course of action that is still focused on bettering the church’s reputation, instead of honestly and creatively searching for ways to promote good.

    “Child molesters bad; should be punished,” is of course not a sentiment or suggestion I would contest. However, I think there are a lot of ways in which just turning people over to the civil authorities is – though perhaps at least the bare minimum of what one should do – is not enough. It may make the church look good, but the criminal justice system is not necessarily known for a real emphasis on rehabilitation and healing for the victims or the perpetrators. But the church can be, is in some cases, and certainly could be. Justice is crucial, but human justice is not the end of repentance or reconciliation.

  2. Agreed that the penal system is not always the best system for rehabilitation. But if you look at the recidivism rates for the priests that some some bishops sent to “rehabilitation camps,” I think they might have had a better shot at rehabilitation in prison. Also, although I don’t have a cite for it right now, recidivism rates for sex offenders are much higher than for others convicted of violent crimes. And at least in prison, they wouldn’t have been able to molest anyone else.

  3. Yeah. I wasn’t saying they shouldn’t be sent to prison. I’m just saying they should be sent to prison because that’s the best option for keeping them away from children and getting them treatment and because it’s the law: not to make the church look less sketchy.

  4. Oh, I don’t think this is mainly about the church’s reputation. Not at all. I think the point is to do the loving thing, which is standing with victims and against oppressors. This should be the only Christian response. But it also has the happy effect of being better for the church as an institution (which may even be a confused concept, but I’ll save that discussion for another day). And, of course, I wanted to point out that the idea that hiding this stuff will save the church’s reputation is preposterous.

  5. These rogue priests need to spend time behind bars for their crimes. Maybe they’d be more at home with other law breakers and child molesters and rapists. The sweeping under the rug of these prist’s and their crimes have to come to a screeching halt. The cover ups by the church needs more publicity so that the Vatican will want to do the right thing and not downplay these visiouse crimes on Our society,and make it and them to stop,once and for all.

  6. I think it doesn’t just start with child molestation, it’s starts with abuse of authority. As a priests you have over stepped your boundaries and have made people your subjects. In the Protestant church there are molestations occurring also. Any time a church official has sex with a member of their congregation it is a sin.

    1. Culturally, we have become very reluctant to practise any kind of effective church censure, believing that grace negates our need for justice on earth. As we have seen, even high-profile ministers such Ted Haggard, once defrocked for sexual abuses, have later been able brazenly to start a new church – a new Church indeed, schismatical in its lack of respect for morals.

      Even with powerful vestries, corrupt ministers often prove difficult to remove. But all, both bishops and laymen, must answer to God concerning the command to defend the widow and the orphan, and all the weak and defenceless. Church courts must try these cases of sexual abuse and remove from their posts those who have so harmed others.

      I do also support imprisoning as well as defrocking priests who have preyed upon others sexually, but I should also like to point out that this course of action, unless all of us choose the papalism of Unam Sanctam, has Erastian implications that none can avoid.

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