Claiming Power Over Pedophile Leaders and the Church Institutions That Protect Them

Priests molested small boys in their beds at night. The boys were pulled into the confessional booth and groped. Horrors abound–stories that make our mouths fall open in shock, our guts wrench in grief, and our heads redden with fury. Predators are everywhere, and they don’t turn into something else when they put on a collar or earn an R-E-V for the front of their name. But the pernicious sins propagate when the church protects its institution over the wellbeing of children, when we hide pastors in far-away mission fields instead of in prison, and when we would rather not face the pain of upsetting an established school or congregation because of the tale of a small boy. When a religious person molests a child, trauma crashes through the child’s life, affecting the sexuality and spirituality of that person the rest of his or her years. The emotional turmoil ripples through the family and keeps reverberating through the community. For clergy to think that it is in our power to hide the assault, for us to turn our heads so that it can happen again and again, makes us complicit in the abuse. What can we do to stop it? What can church leaders and the people in the pews do to make sure that these things are not happening in their own congregation?

First, work on the local level, ensuring that practical things are in place. Wherever children are in a classroom, there needs to be uncovered windows in the walls or doors. Your faith community should have a child protection policy, which might include things like making sure there are two nursery workers or Sunday school teachers in every classroom. Leaders who teach children on a regular basis should go through a background check. All pastors should have a background check. Find out your church’s attitude toward reporting. Do they report sexual violations to the police, or do they feel that it is enough to alert the church authorities? When crimes are committed, clergy have a bad habit of protecting each other, and a nice retirement on the mission field or a cushy parish in a rural out-of-the-way area is not enough punishment for a pedophile pastor, and the move only puts more children in danger.

Second, find out how your church works. Just as corruption can spread in certain state governments, abuse can fester in particular church governments. Be wary if your church is a stand-alone congregation. If it is not a part of a denomination, then there may not be systems for background checks, reporting, or dealing with sexual abuse in place. On the other hand, if your church hierarchy is only made up of ordained pastors, then there may be a greater concern for the institution and not enough outside voices for clarity on sexual matters. When clergy and laity work together in the church, when they both have power, then there is less likelihood for the church to focus inward and protect itself.

Finally, make sure that women have appropriate power in your congregation or denomination. All women—and particularly mothers—can be fierce defenders of children in our society. Not only that, but in our country, many of us have been victims of sexual abuse ourselves. We know what it looks like, we know what it smells like, and many women will not tolerate it. Plus, if a church keeps the voices of women silenced, then you do not want to expose your children to a system of oppression.

The horror stories have to stop. Many of us feel powerless as we read about those who have been victimized in the past, but we can change what will happen in the future, if we take responsibility in our congregation and in our denominations.

Around and on the Horizon

As different opportunities come up, I am coming to the startling realization that there are only a certain number hours in the day, and the hours that were once filled with blogging are now filled with other stuff.

But, I do want to let you know about the other stuff. I’m writing for the Huffington Post’s new Religion section. I was happy to see that my first post on Miriam’s Kitchen made it on to the first page. At least for a while. (Scroll down. Below the Lame Oscar Moments, below the Hustler article. Keep scrolling… there.) There will be a link to my blog on HuffPo, but I’m not sure what it is yet. I’ll be writing there a couple times a week, so I’ll let you know.

Also, God Complex Radio is doing really well. Most recently, I interviewed David Batstone about Not For Sale and the modern abolitionist movement. Coming up on Friday, we’re celebrating Women’s Day with an interview with Cynthia Rigby on the life and legacy of Mary Daly. Ryan Kemp-Pappan is also on that episode. And, I had a chance to talk to Eboo Patel for a podcast that will be coming up on the 19th. And if those amazing people are not enough to get you to iTunes to subscribe, then you surely will when I tell you that Serene Jones will be on a couple weeks following Eboo.

I’m doing a monthly post for Duke Divinity’s Faith and Leadership blog.

And… finally… I want to let you know that I’m going to be at Stony Point on March 21-23. I’ll be leading a seminar, along with Rick Ufford-Chase on Ministering to the Missing Generation, and registration is still open if you’d like to come.