|United Methodists need to face abuse crisis|
7:00 A.M. EST June 14, 2010
A statue of Jesus weeping on behalf of the suffering is found near the memorial site in Oklahoma City where 168 perished in the 1995 terrorist bombing. A UMNS photo by Ronny Perry.
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Once again, the Roman Catholic Church is in the hot seat in the wake of allegations of sexual misconduct by priests and inaction and cover-ups at the highest levels of church leadership. And once again, church leadership has flubbed it—blaming news media, playing the victim, making excuses and generally not taking responsibility. The pope, arguably the world’s most prolific theologian, can’t even offer a simple apology.
However, lest the rest of us in the religious community yield to the temptation to sit in smug and detached judgment of our brothers in the Catholic hierarchy, let’s consider the planks in our own eyes.
Church Mutual Insurance, a company that insures churches and church-related entities from several denominations, reportedly receives more than 350 claims per year regarding alleged sexual abuse of adults and children by clergy or laity in ministerial leadership.
In The United Methodist Church, adjudicating cases of sexual misconduct by clergy has cost us $100 million in the past 10 years alone. (And those are just the cases we know about. There is no central repository for such records. So, if you don’t have enough money to pay your pastor’s salary, give scholarships to all your college-age members, or send a mission team to build a well in Haiti, this is one reason why.)
Beyond that, so far in 2010, the churchwide Commission on the Status and Role of Women has fielded 40 complaints of alleged sexual abuse against women, children and men by United Methodist clergy and laity in ministerial/church leadership roles.
The United Methodist Church has a commendable track record in terms of on-the-books policies and procedures for screening clergy candidates, prevention training for active pastors, adjudication of complaints and cooperating with civil authorities. However, our actual track record for effective prevention, intervention and holding errant clergy accountable for abuse is another thing. As in the Roman Catholic situation, too often we protect bad pastors by simply moving them to new assignments, we don’t communicate well with affected congregations and we neglect and marginalize those who are abused—sometimes even ostracizing and punishing “whistle blowers” for reporting misconduct.
In fact, too often, the corporate United Methodist Church neglects our primary call to be caring and pastoral to wounded disciples of Jesus Christ in the name of protecting the institutional church, discrediting those who complain and engaging in stonewalling and legal maneuvering instead of justice making.
And each time we fail to protect the vulnerable and champion the highest ethics among clergy, we sacrifice a bit more of our integrity, credibility and ability to reflect and represent the loving and liberating Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I’ve been asked by journalists and church leaders alike: “What do you think about the Catholic situation?” and “What advice would you give to Catholic church leaders?” And my answer, humbly, is, that every Christian community—its leaders and everyday members alike—must take the following steps to reclaim moral authority, using this to-do list.
- Confront sexism, ageism and racism. Most perpetrators of sexual abuse are men; most of the abused are women and children. One reason Christians can’t get a handle on abuse is because we privilege males—particularly clergy males—and we discount and dismiss women and children. We as a society believe that women “ask for it,” that women are intentionally provocative and are “asking for it.” We believe that children lie and that teenage girls asserting their sexual beings can seduce and lead a grown man astray. Too often, we people of color and those from the Southern Hemisphere defend sexism and sexual violence as “cultural norms” and, therefore, acceptable. However, in claiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ as our road map for individual and corporate life, we also declare that the sacred worth of all people trumps sexism, ageism and culture. We need to say that and live it.
- Remove errant pastors. Period. Being ordained or licensed as a minister is not a right—it is a calling and a privilege. Ordination is the church’s imprimatur on our representatives, who are not perfect, but who are called and set apart by God as servant leaders. Clergy (and laypersons serving ministerial roles)—who use their parishes as their harems, who exploit children and vulnerable adults and who operate out of a sense of maverick entitlement harm the church and its members. They are not effective ministers of grace, they cannot be trusted to represent the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a hurting world, and they have no place teaching and preaching in the name of our church. Errant clergy are, of course, recipients of God’s love, redemption and forgiveness. Removing pastors who exhibit bad behavior and offering them redeeming love and pastoral support are not mutually exclusive.
- Support and reward good pastors. Being an effective, caring, healthy pastor is a hard job, and a disproportionate number of pastors neglect their personal lives and let boundaries between church and home slide. When this happens, even good pastors are at risk of losing their perspective, crossing personal boundaries, and messing up. Clergy need regularly scheduled renewal leave and pastoral care outside their official assignments. Pastors need days off; married pastors need date nights; single pastors need time and space to date and socialize. In a recent conversation, a pastor-friend told me she has so much paperwork, so many meetings and so much day-to-day work that she seldom has time for group Bible study and intense prayer, and that her district superintendent has never asked her, “How is it with your soul?” Nurturing and sustaining effective pastors requires us to tend to their souls, to make discipleship development an ongoing part of our support and continuing education, and to have systems in place to intervene when a clergyperson is in trouble. The first step in preventing sexual misconduct by clergy is to ensure that the pastors we claim—beginning in seminary and in the local-pastor licensing processes—are supported and affirmed for their ongoing spiritual and emotional well-being.
- Engage laypeople in prevention. Most laypeople depend on pastors and church administrators to set the standards, know the rules about professional boundaries and abuse-of-power issues, maintain the appropriate boundaries and hold clergy accountable. However, I believe educating laity and letting laity take part in both prevention education and adjudication would help prevent secret keeping and the temptation for clergy to shield errant colleagues. Laity need to know that misconduct does happen in the church and that we have policies and procedures for addressing it, and that their protection and their spiritual and physical well-being are uppermost in the minds of pastors, bishops and other church leaders. Back-room deals, hiding behind “confidentiality” agreements, and moving bad pastors to other appointments has not stemmed the number of sexual abuse cases. There are laity in the pews who are psychiatrists, therapists, educators, lawyers and teachers; they’ve dealt with professional boundary issues for decades and can only help the church get its house in order.
- Uphold nonnegotiable, binding churchwide policies, procedures and adjudication. Currently, except for minimum standards, each annual conference of The United Methodist Church sets its own standards for ordaining/licensing ministers. Each conference designs its own method and manner for training and orienting pastors and church members, and each conference has its own processes and standards for dealing with sexual misconduct (and any other complaints), including caring for the accuser, accused, their families and congregations. These standards, practices and processes can vary widely according to the competency of bishops and other administrators and their interest and sensitivity. They may also vary by geographical location and cultural history. That’s not good enough. If we are The United Methodist Church of Jesus Christ, seeking to transform the world in his name, then we need to assure that wherever the Cross and Flame is found, that clergy and laity in leadership are bound by equally high standards and will be held accountable if they cross certain strict boundaries, i.e., perpetrating sexual abuse or misconduct.
- Confess our sins publicly and then make it right. As anyone who has ever fought with a spouse knows, saying, “I’m sorry you feel hurt” is worse than saying nothing at all. Still worse is playing the victim, as some Catholic leaders have done when they claim that the media is picking on the church by reporting on the sexual abuse scandal. Reality check: “The only victims are the ones who were abused by the church and saw their abusers go unpunished.” The only godly stance when a Christian has wronged another, who is made in God’s image, is to humbly admit wrongdoing (publicly and often), to beg forgiveness from and offer restitution to God and the survivors, to seek justice for those affected, and to work tirelessly to ensure that the wrongdoing is not repeated.
Yes, the current news is full of the “Catholic problem,” but be assured that clergy sexual misconduct is an ecumenical problem that requires all Christians be equipped to know the issues, act appropriately, pray for forgiveness and wisdom, and to humbly pledge that we will cease making protections for errant clergy and negligent denominational leaders a higher priority than serving and protecting the people God has placed in our care.
*Burton is top executive of the Commission on the Status and Role of Women of The United Methodist Church.
News media contact: David Briggs, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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