Peggy and I have just returned from a trip where we visited a number of churches in Atlanta, Montgomery and Birmingham looking at the way that the Civil Rights Movement in America was led by gifted church leaders who were good at pointing to injustice and persistent in finding hopeful ways to address it. The churches we visited were not cathedrals, but working congregations of moderate size and scope that literally changed the world. I came home inspired about the power of churches to make a true difference.
I also came home to more bad news about clergy abuse. As Pope Francis convened an enclave for cardinals to respond to un-going allegations of clergy sexual abuse - the latest examples describing priests at a home for deaf children in Italy, we learned that the Vatican and the bishops were well aware for years of the pattern of clergy abuse. The church went so far, we learned this month, as to fashion a whole set of secret rules of conduct that applied to clergy who raped nuns, or created conjugal relationships with them. It was widely known that children from those relationships was raised in Catholic orphanages.
Then came news last week that the Southern Baptists knew for decades about pastors who were sexual predators with women in their congregations and turned a blind eye. Putting secrecy and reputation first, both church punished people who raised the issue or tried to throw any light on them.
As we have learned for over two decades now from the first Globe Spotlight reports on clergy abuse that broke in 1998, we have almost grown numb to the news that has washed over us of cruelty, dishonesty and hypocrisy. in both cases we are talking repeated instances and patterns of child rape here. It is no wonder that churches everywhere are paying the price. It is no wonder that people are so discouraged by pastors that they won’t go to any church at all. It is no wonder that the general public feels disappointed, discouraged and disenfranchised from our faith institutions. How could it be otherwise?
President of Union Seminary in New York City connects this all to patriarchal power. She points to the commonality between the Roman Catholic and Southern Baptist Churches when it comes to the way they hold power as institutions and protect patriarchal power in unquestioning ways. She goes on to say, “They both have very masculine understandings of God, and have a structure where men are considered the closest representatives of God.”
I believe it is important to talk about these issues and not look away. I believe it is important to state again that not all churches are abusive, but all of us need to be careful every day about how we use the sacred power entrusted to us. I believe it is so important to talk about these findings and the issues of unquestioned privilege that lay the ground for abuse of power because I see the potential of the church for good too. I see the power and presence of the Holy Spirit in communities of faith everyday.
However, we have to earn the public’s trust anew. We have to speak the truth. We have to fight for justice. We need to reclaim our commitment to the weak. We cannot afford to be silent when issues are thorny. We have to hold sacred power without being seduced by it. Like the Black pastors whose churches we visited last week, we need to listen to our people and fight for them.
Thank you for your kindness and cards and celebrations on Sunday Feb. 10 when you celebrated my birthday. You have endeared yourself to me again. I feel grateful.