The Clergy Abuse Scandal

Andrew Sullivan has a couple blog entries about how the Episcopal Church handles sex abuse cases.  It was not always like this – and Episcopal clergy have transgressed other boundaries – but I’ve seen the zero tolerance policy in action.

A few times a year I get a letter from the Bishop that I’m supposed to read aloud for the vestry.  It will have the name of a priest that has been inhibited, defrocked, or left the priesthood.  It’s yearly reminder of our humanity.

When I was studying for my doctorate, I did some research into the history of my parish.  I learned that in the early-mid 40’s a popular young priest had exposed himself to a couple young boys.

The parish was divided.  The vestry, it seemed, liked the priest.  They didn’t want him severely punished.   The wardens interceded on the priest’s behalf.  The bishop’s response was electric:  What would you do if it were your son?

The case went to court.  The bishop waited until the verdict came down, after which the priest was defrocked and banned.    In the letter to the priest, the bishop’s held him responsible for his actions, spelling out the damaging effects of his actions, while also expressing empathy in the midst of sadness and disappointment.   Bishop Manning, God Bless You.

I recognize this did not happen all the time.  But especially since women have been ordained, the Episcopal Church has slowly adopted a zero tolerance view toward abusers.

The current divisions in our communion may have some unintended consequences.  Bishops will hold gay clergy to the same standards as straight clergy.   Suspected Episcopal priest predators who should the correct pieties may leave to join the spinoff Anglican communities.  I think some of the partners of gay clergy might not be that happy to be required to marry; and I’ve heard plenty of rumors of dodgy traditionalist clergy.

To me, our current situation reveals how the bishop’s role can protect the victims. The episcopacy should challenge Congregations that protect the friendly clergy who’ve charmed them.   It may require protecting clergy who may be innocent.   But immediate attention and decisiveness are crucial in these situations.   And even bishops themselves shall be held up for scrutiny.

I am proud of my church.  Granted, in part we have taken the zero-tolerance rule precisely because we’ve seen what has happened in our sister church.  I believe What makes us truly different is not really Roman teaching.  I personally believe in the efficacy of the sacraments; the visible church; the communion of saints; and the witness of the Holy Father.   What may make us different is something completely different.  We’ve allowed our institution to change in order to make better decisions.  In the realm of sex abuse we’ve learned to listen to the laity.   We trust them.  If only we could rebuild our church.

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