The stories sounded so outrageous that even those who’d experienced the traumatic events firsthand were reluctant to tell what had happened. So they’d been muttered only in the dark for years, with tears, to close friends, psychologists and doctors. Many had written in secret journals about the pain they’d experienced as a result of sexual abuse by the clergy.
Catholic priests have received the brunt of these accusations in recent years, and the most persistent allegations bubbled to the surface in one of America’s most heavily Roman Catholic cities, Boston, though few were at first willing to credit the claims that Roman Catholic priests had been sexually abusing young boys for decades.
2015’s Academy Award-winning movie, Spotlight, documented how in 2002, a team from The Boston Globe stripped bare the cover-up by the Catholic church of priests abusing hundreds of young boys. Perhaps the most damaging accusation (which turned out to be true) was that top leaders in the church, like Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law, knew of the abuse, but had merely shuffled paedophile priests from parish to parish for years with barely a slap on the wrist.
Some have claimed that clerical celibacy is to blame, or social retardation because of the young age at which young men prepare for the priesthood. But let’s state it clearly here: this is not just a Roman Catholic problem. Married Protestant pastors and church leaders also commit sexual abuse. Paedophilia has been a problem in the orthodox Jewish community. And it goes beyond religion to school teachers, counsellors, policemen, physicians and men in almost every walk of life. Wherever there is an imbalance in power, where one person is in authority and another under authority, there exists the spectre of sexual abuse. And it’s nearly always perpetrated by men.
To many of us, the biggest disappointment is that leaders in faith communities—men who claim to be representatives of God—take sexual advantage of children and women.
The Hebrew Bible tells about a priest named Eli whose sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were spoiled and wicked. The Bible calls them “sons of Belial” (1 Samuel 2:12, KJV), a figurative expression that spans a meaning between “utterly worthless” and “offspring of a devil.”
Two sins are mentioned: first, that they didn’t take a random portion of the animal sacrifice for their food and burn the rest to the Lord, but instead chose the best cuts for themselves (verses 13–17); and second, that they had sex with women at the sanctuary, which was a holy place (verse 22).
Hophni and Phinehas are the Bible’s clearest examples of sexual abuse under religious authority, and their sentence was pronounced by God. Not only his sons, but Eli himself died all in one day—the day the Ark of the Covenant was captured by the enemy Philistines. The family’s reputation never recovered from the shame.
The problem is not oversexed religious leaders. All human beings are subject to sexual temptation. The problem is giving religious leaders so much authority with so little accountability they can take advantage of others in the name of God.
When Jesus said, “Call no man your father” (Matthew 23:9, KJV), He certainly wasn’t condemning fatherhood, much less children properly addressing a male parent. He was pointing out a recurring tendency among religious leaders to overextend their power over others. Jesus said such men insist on others’ obedience (Matthew 23:2), but they don’t practise what they preach (verse 3). They lay heavy religious burdens on others but refuse to care for those in need (verse 4). They adopt religious customs, titles and dress, but they aren’t godly enough in their actions to merit people’s respect (verses 5, 6).
Jesus denies them three titles that they craved: teacher, father and guide. The reason appears to be twofold: first, because God in His several roles is the only One who automatically merits full authority (verses 8–10), and second, because these titles would have to be earned by unselfish service to others, not granted as a matter of right (verse 11).
One of the most misunderstood passages in the Bible is the familiar third commandment: “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God” (Exodus 20:7).
It’s usually considered to be a prohibition against cursing. And while vulgar language is despicable, this commandment is also directed against those who would piously call upon their authority as men of God in order to earn selfish rewards, whether money, honour, power or sex.
Its target isn’t just the dissolute of society. It condemns the most pious, whom history has shown to be far more dangerous than bar-room blasphemers.
All of the notorious religious abusers of history cultivated an exalted sense of their own authority—people such as Jim Jones and David Koresh and dozens of others who went so far as to convince their followers that they were gods. Always, the result was abusive behaviour to the weakest and most vulnerable.
And so it has ever been when we aspire to compete with God. Satan is quoted to have said, “I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, I will be like the Most High” (Isaiah 14:14, KJV).
And so was evil introduced into what had once been a perfect creation. Clearly, there is only room in the universe for one good and perfect God. No-one else deserves our full trust.
God is first called “Father” in Deuteronomy 32:6, and the identification is meant to be complimentary to both male parents and God. God is a Father in that He is:
- Protective: “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows” (Psalm 68:5).
- Instructive: “All Scripture is God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16).
- Responsive: “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8).
- Loving: “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us!” (1 John 3:1).
- Life-giving: “Yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live” (1 Corinthians 8:6).
- Life-sustaining: “For in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
- Power for life unending: “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God” (John 17:3).
With the exception of the last, these qualities of God are demonstrated in some sense by good human fathers, meaning that fathers have a responsibility to be the sort of fathers who accurately reflect God.
As for those who call themselves “father” (or any other title of respect) but abuse the trust placed in them, Jesus pronounced a simple but fatal prescription: “If anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Matthew 18:6).
I suspect many so-called men of God will find in the final judgement that their robes, ceremonies, titles and the adoration of followers will have meant nothing at all in the absence of a godly character.
If you have experienced clergy abuse, you can find help with The Hope of Survivors (www.thehopeofsurvivors.com) or SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) (www.snapaustralia.org).