How we can re­build trust in the clergy

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Opinion - BY L. GRE­GORY JONES Spe­cial to the Ob­server Jones is the dean of Duke Di­vin­ity School.

A Penn­syl­va­nia grand jury’s report this week about sex­ual abuse in the Catholic Church was dev­as­tat­ing and heart­break­ing. The sto­ries are de­spi­ca­ble; even more trou­bling is the Church’s re­fusal to ad­dress prob­lems im­me­di­ately, its sys­temic pat­terns of cover-up and its in­abil­ity to take cor­rec­tive ac­tion to min­i­mize the risk of fu­ture abuse.

We strug­gle any time we dis­cover the hor­rific and abu­sive ways in which hu­man be­ings can treat other hu­man be­ings. But it is some­thing else al­to­gether when the source of the mis­treat­ment comes from peo­ple, and or­ga­ni­za­tions, in whom there is a higher — in­deed a sa­cred — trust. Or was a higher, sa­cred trust. Many of the episodes hap­pened be­cause peo­ple, and es­pe­cially par­ents, thought they could trust priests and the Church.

I pub­lished an op-ed al­most two decades ago called “Tough Love for Sex­ual Abusers” when the Catholic sex­ual abuse cri­sis was first com­ing to pub­lic aware­ness. I em­pha­sized the im­por­tance of deal­ing with the is­sues sys­tem­i­cally, the sig­nif­i­cance of fo­cus­ing on care and jus­tice for vic­tims, and the the­o­log­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance of avoid­ing “cheap grace” and triv­i­al­iz­ing for­give­ness.

In ret­ro­spect, my piece was naïve. I as­sumed that lead­ers in the Church would move quickly, the­o­log­i­cally and ad­min­is­tra­tively to ad­dress the prob­lems. They did in some ways, but clearly nowhere near enough. The breadth and de­tails of sys­temic is­sues con­tained in the grand jury report de­mands a se­ri­ous reck­on­ing — now.

I am not Ro­man Catholic, but I am a Chris­tian. I am also a United Methodist pas­tor and dean of Duke Di­vin­ity School, an in­sti­tu­tion that pre­pares women and men in Protes­tant tra­di­tions for pas­toral min­istry. The grand jury report not only raises im­por­tant ques­tions for or- dained min­istry and the Church across the tra­di­tions, but also dam­ages the cred­i­bil­ity and trust of the Church and of churches.

Re­cent sto­ries about sex­ual mis­con­duct at Wil­low Creek Church, and among high-pro­file lead­ers in the South­ern Bap­tist Con­ven­tion, are re­minders that be­tray­als of trust and abuses of power are nei­ther iso­lated nor the ex­clu­sive prob­lems of one sec­tor or tra­di­tion.

We Chris­tians have se­ri­ous re­pair work to do. We need, first, to hold our­selves to higher lev­els of ac­count­abil­ity than that re­quired by the law. We cer­tainly need to work with le­gal au­thor­i­ties to in­ves­ti­gate al­le­ga­tions, and we need to be will­ing to be trans­par­ent, can­did and ac­count­able.

Sec­ond, we must cor­po­rately and per­son­ally em­body re­pen­tance, hu­mil­ity and prayer­ful com­mit­ment to vic­tims. This es­pe­cially in­cludes our lead­ers; we must reckon more clearly with the dan­ger­ous abuses of power, and ar­tic­u­late more clearly wise uses of power.

Third, we must be­gin to work to re­build trust. This will take a long time, and will re­quire courage, truth­ful­ness and a will­ing­ness to change.

Fourth, those of us en­trusted with ed­u­cat­ing and form­ing clergy need to change. We need to pay greater at­ten­tion to is­sues of sex­ual abuse and in­sti­tu­tional ac­count­abil­ity in our course­work and schol­ar­ship; fo­cus more on char­ac­ter; and iden­tify how to min­i­mize the risks of dam­age by com­plex or­ga­ni­za­tions, their lead­ers and their ex­er­cise of power.

I hope this will be a wake-up call for all peo­ple of faith, and es­pe­cially di­vin­ity schools and sem­i­nar­ies, to be­gin the re­pair work we need to do. I hope we will pre­pare women and men to prac­tice hu­mil­ity and em­body trust, to nur­ture or­ga­ni­za­tions ca­pa­ble of pre­vent­ing abuse when­ever pos­si­ble and im­me­di­ately ad­dress­ing it if it does, and to cul­ti­vate more faith­ful wit­ness in all we are and do. The chal­lenges are daunt­ing; the ur­gency of ad­dress­ing them is clear. May we rise to the chal­lenges.


After a Penn­syl­va­nia grand jury report on sex­ual abuse in the Catholic Church, work is needed to re­build trust.

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