Missa Tridenta by Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter

When Christian Leaders Go Bad

Clergy scandals can break your heart.  Clergy scandal may even break your faith.  Recent news stories have revealed levels of corruption and sexual misconduct within elements of the Roman Catholic Church. Priests and bishops in various parts of the United States and other countries have been accused of sexual crimes that date back decades in some cases. Many people are shocked and bewildered that those whom they trusted have betrayed that trust. Others, like myself, aren’t so much shocked as saddened. The sadness comes from seeing people who claim to represent the Lord Jesus prey upon those who are under their spiritual care.

So for those trying to make sense of this tragedy, allow me to bring some perspective from my years as a Christian leader:

Don’t associate bad clergy with Jesus

First, don’t make the mistake of associating the evil behavior of certain spiritual leaders with Jesus himself. Jesus never took advantage of anyone. Jesus never hurt anyone. Jesus only saves and blesses and enriches the lives of those who put their trust in him. So, when people who claim to represent Jesus act in ways that disgrace him, keep in mind that Jesus is and always will be the loving, perfect Son of God. People acting badly in his name simply disqualify themselves from representing the Lord Jesus. They don’t change him, and they shouldn’t damage his character by association in people’s thinking.

Second, as a Protestant Christian with no particular dog in the fight, I can say from personal experience that there are honorable Catholics (including clergy) and dishonorable ones. There are Catholics who are worthy of admiration and who speak well for the God they claim to represent. But there are also Catholics that are guilty of terrible crimes and deserve prosecution to the fullest extent of the law.  Like people of any group, Catholic people and Catholic clergy are a mixed bag.

Third, the Roman Catholic Church has the same problems and issues that any other large organization struggles with. For instance:

The Catholic Church claims a tradition that goes back to the Apostle Peter in the first century. It may be true that the origins of Catholicism go back that far, but then so do the origins of the Eastern Orthodox churches. Even Protestants (such as Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and many others who split from the Roman Catholic Church in the 1500s, have an authentic claim to the 2,000-year heritage of Christianity.   So it is true that Catholicism has a long connection with the Christian tradition. But, on the other hand, the modern Roman Catholic Church is significantly different from early Christian practice and belief in certain ways. The differences are in the ways they have had to develop and adapt to different issues over their history. So do Catholic leaders represent Jesus and the teaching of the apostles as recorded in the Bible? Probably no Christian organization represents Jesus fully. The fact that there are dozens of churches and groups that are part of the Christian tradition shows this.

Making sense of clergy scandal

So how can it be that people who claim to speak for morality and goodness, sometimes end up as sexual predators? How can a church organization that claims to mediate Christ’s salvation on earth fail to deal with such predators? Here are some thoughts on the clergy scandal in the Catholic Church:

  • The Roman Catholic Church is a global enterprise with enormous influence and resources. Wealth and power attract all sorts of people, including those who are crooked and immoral, or whose character can be corrupted as they make life choices. Sometimes unethical people make it to the upper levels of powerful organizations. In fact, widespread corruption was one of the prime reasons why the various Protestant groups sought reformation and eventually separated from Catholicism in the 1500s.
  • The Catholic policy of requiring celibacy in its spiritual leaders is a double-edged sword. Celibacy allows a person truly called to a single life to devote a greater portion of their time to serving people and the church organization. But when celibacy is required, regardless of inclination or calling, it can result in pent-up sexual desires, which can manifest themselves in various ways – none of which are positive in outcome.
  • When accused publicly of wrongdoing, the natural reaction of any organization is, first, to deny and try to cover-up the problem. Then, as accusations multiply and evidence emerges, organizations may be forced to admit limited fault and make a public show of punishing scapegoats. When the extent of the wrongdoing becomes undeniable, the last resort is to go through the painful process of full disclosure and true reform. The deeper the problem and the more scandalous the offense, the longer it takes to get to full disclosure and true reform. Sadly sometimes the cover-up and limited disclosure tactics are sufficient to make the public outcry go away. And so the problem continues.

The Roman Catholic Church has had more than its share of scandal in recent times. Let us pray that they move quickly into full disclosure and true reform.

Dr. Michael Bogart