I’ve been writing a lot lately about the latest crisis in the Catholic Church, but by no means should any Christian consider that this is a Catholic thing alone. I received the following letter from a reader, who gives me permission to publish it. I’m taking the name of the church and the school out because the reader makes a couple of other statements that are damning, but that I can’t verify independently. He said this editing is fine; the message he wants others to know is that there really isn’t a fully safe place, and that people should be on their guard all the time. Here we go:
The sorts of sexual abuse you have detailed over the years are by no means limited to the Catholic church (though the scale there is horrific). Protestant churches and schools have had the same vulnerability, and we witnessed one such about a decade ago.
There is a miasma that hangs over a church when it is covering up major sins within its own ranks. One cannot always pinpoint why, exactly, but such churches are spiritually compromised, and sometimes one can feel it without ever knowing why at the time. In a church we attended for a number of years, there was such — a pervading illness of abuse and infidelity.
We were thankfully not directly affected (I’d be serving in prison for murder otherwise), but we knew some who were. It was rotten, and it stank, and it was covered up in a conspiracy for years before our local paper blew it wide open. Maybe you have heard of it already (in which I apologize for bending your eyeballs on this), but it was all at [name of school], and their parent church, [name of church].
All told, 3 teachers were involved, as well as at least a couple of administrators. The sickening part was that the church eldership and pastors knew damn well about many of the allegations, but badgered the parents and teachers into silence. When parents would protest, they would be lectured about the “need for forgiveness and restoration”. There was a brief and shining moment of reform when the founding pastor of the place retired, and a new guy came in. He started culling people and slaughtering the sacred cows, reforming both the church and the school. Old and buried allegations were unearthed and given the antiseptic of light. But the old guard closed ranks too, and things look set for an open war. Then the new pastor died rather suddenly, and within months the old guard reasserted itself, even going so far as to rewrite the church charter to strip the senior pastor of any real power.
After we had enough, with the scandals continuing their awful and slow unearthing, and the school resuming its old ways, we yanked our own kids out. I spoke earlier of a miasma, and it turns out that one of the most senior pastors/elders had been unfaithful to his wife multiple times, with multiple women over the years, and the affairs were well known among the church leadership. That they covered those up (his “confessing” to them each time was deemed “good enough”) while leaving him in the same post was of the same mentality for their covering up for the teachers and school admins involved in their own sins too.
We moved on and left it all behind. Our kids go to school elsewhere, and we changed churches. One family we know, whose child was directly affected, and whose mother taught at the school, completely moved out of state to get their child away from it. But there is still one parent whom I see handing out leaflets and wearing a sandwich board at busy intersections around town, still protesting for justice and accountability, long after his own children have become adults. And I still wonder if the rot was ever purged. Somehow I doubt it. A church that can deliberately hide a pastor’s infidelity, and can ignore pedophiles in its teachers, can hide a great deal more besides.
As this new wave of allegations yet again rocks the Catholic church, and as the whole #MeToo business continues to play out, I cannot help but wonder how many other such scandals will be unearthed. As damaging as this has been for Catholicism, I suspect that there will be a wave coming that is quite as damaging for Evangelical Protestantism as well. The Evangelicals being so dominant here in the US, Christianity itself will be horribly rocked, should this come to pass. Still, these things need to come out.
After I wrote the reader and asked if I could post it, with the name of the church and the school removed, the reader responded:
Rod, sure, go ahead with it, it’s an important story. All churches are vulnerable to predators, either from the top-down, or the bottom up. Completely understand on omitting the name of the place — in the end the name is far less important than people understanding what happened and how. We had some other thoughts to add here.
After I fired this off, my wife and I were talking about it for some time this morning. Her own observations were that these sorts of creeps are like magnets to each other. You drop your guard and let one in, you can practically guarantee that more will follow. Whether one ascribes this to opening the door to the demons (much as in what frequently sees when people venture into the occult), or that these people attract or actively recruit others, the point remains that where you find one, you find an infection. We actually do consider this demonic. A spiritually compromised church is a dangerous place (and not just with sexual sins – we’ve seen or heard of other forms of corruption too). Some churches are quicker than others to wise up to this.
My own additional note was that these people were involved in the church and school even after the school started instituting background checks. Yes, background checks and security are vital, but they do not cover all people or situations. Worse yet, they can serve to protect the guilty because they give cover. “Why should we believe you complaining parents when these checks came clean?” Sorry folks, but you’ve just locked the barn door after letting in the wolf.
These points are hugely important. You cannot rely on policies alone. Personnel is policy. The Diocese of Fort Worth had the Dallas charter in place, but Father Christopher Clay, a bad priest, slipped through because a pastor and the parish council chose to deceive the bishop and others in the parish. This event was the straw that broke the camel’s back for my wife and me — the thing that at last, after years of bearing up under this load of foul corruption, drove us out of the Catholic Church, though we didn’t formally leave until at least a year later.
We departed broken but chastened, determined never to place our trust with our kids in any institution. Mind you, one cannot live in society as a total paranoid, and we don’t assume that lechers and pederasts are around every corner. What we do assume, though, as a matter of habit, is that we should be very vigilant, and never, ever believe that we cannot be fooled ourselves. One reason Father Clay flew below our own radar is that we believed that we could spot a lying priest, and could not be deceived. As you’ll see if you read that piece, it was only because of an accident that Father Clay blew his own cover.
Point here is, do not find comfort in telling yourselves that this is just a Catholic problem, or that things are fine because Policies Are In Place To Prevent This, and so forth. And don’t assume, as some conservatives do, that it’s just a gay thing. I looked up stories online about the case this reader above raises. The abuse in this case was heterosexual.
Also — and this is huge — abusers and those covering for them (either actively or passively) are ace at manipulating people using Christian principles of mercy and forgiveness. One variation on this is lashing out at people within the churches who are raising hell about this stuff, accusing them of being too negative. Watch out for these people. It’s not that they all want to affirmatively protect the bad guys; it’s that most of them want to protect themselves from having to face the ugly truth, and deal with it.
I’m getting some pushback from some of you who think I’m being entirely too depressing in talking about the Catholic Church scandal in particular, and the gloomy picture for Christianity in the West in general. Some of you are irritated that I am not leavening the bitter news with spoonfuls of sugar. Sorry, but that’s not my way. I wrote an entire book in which I offered examples of faithful Catholic and other Christian communities that are signs of light and life in this present darkness. Go check it out from the library if you don’t want to give me any of your money. I strongly believe that one of the biggest problems Catholics, and indeed all of us Christians, face now is our inability to deal with the world as it is — with our perverse need to avert our eyes from the crises threatening us.
It is, for example, completely outrageous that 16 years after Boston, the Catholic Church in this country is faced with the McCarrick scandal and its implications. McCarrick’s predations were not exactly a secret among Catholic insiders. A group of American Catholics even flew to the Vatican on their own dime to warn Rome about him, but nothing was done. But the Machine takes care of its own, and depends on the unwillingness of most lay Catholics to confront it, and the powerlessness of priests within the system to raise their voices in protest of corrupt shepherds and the clerical wolves they protect.
They will accuse you of being unfaithful. They will accuse you of being unforgiving. They will accuse you of being a homophobe. They will throw anything they have at you to get you to shut up and look away. Don’t you dare do it. I had a long conversation this morning with a priest who contacted me to say that the corruption is very deep, and that he doesn’t know how it’s every going to be expunged, but that we all have to keep shining lights into dark places, no matter what.
These priests and lay people who work within the system can’t always speak out openly, but they’re privately encouraging those who are, like the Catholic writer Michael Brendan Dougherty:
Been really cheered by all the sweet notes, encouraging DMs, and even the blocks. All the right people.
— Michael Brendan Dougherty (@michaelbd) July 30, 2018
Me too. Thank you.