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; and (2) exhorting the families to consider the interests of the church above their own. 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.
Anson Shupe, In the Name of All That’s Holy: A Theory of Clergy Malfeasance (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1995), 79-116.
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.