A New Christian Response to the Sexual Abuse Crisis
It is no secret to anyone here in Holmes county Ohio that there has been quite a bit of buzz about town with the recent arrest of a CAM missionary to Haiti. Charges of sexual abuse have been made both in Haiti and in Holmes County. Although I do not know the young man personally, it has particularly hit home. He is a member of a sister congregation of the church we attend, and also is related to 2 men (one by birth and one by marriage) I know well and am happy to call brothers in the Lord.
As an Emergency Medicine physician, I have taken a particular interest in cases of sexual abuse in the Church. Sexual abuse and its consequences are something I deal with in my profession not infrequently. It is no exaggeration to say that I deal with it almost on a daily basis at work: not only the attacks, but also the panic attacks, depressive episodes, suicide attempts, and so on! It is also clear that this case was not the exception, but that there is in our society an epidemic of abuse. It is very sad that our conservative circles are not immune to this. Thankfully, as James reminds us there is a cure for even this variety of heart disease:
Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him; Let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins. (Jas 5:19-20)
Through recent interactions, I have had many opportunities to hear comments of what has been on people's hearts and minds concerning this matter. Emotions are running high, and many of the sentiments have been constructive. Yet others have awakened in me memories from my own past that have greatly magnified my concern.
About my past: I was raised Roman Catholic, and I can not say that it was an unhappy experience. As I look back, I can say that there were many good things I learned. While a personal relationship with the Lord is an unknown concept to most Catholics, I was taught about the Bible from a factual standpoint. Also, I respected the fact that people devoted their lives to prayer (Monks), teaching (Nuns), and ministry (Priests). Furthermore, I did learn a great deal about personal morality (though there are, admittedly, too many Catholic public figures that may not reflect this). I have been pleased to know many Catholics that have strong moral consciences.
No, I'm not I'm proselytizing for the Catholic Church. I have to chuckle to myself, when I recall a brother in the Lord commented (good naturedly) that I must have been a bad (big 'C') Catholic for having left. I replied that it was only good Catholics that graduate to join the (little 'c') catholic (universal) church - the Body of Christ.
The truth is, that there were a number of things in the Catholic Church that were and are corrupt - even beyond the errant doctrinal stances. To many people, even some Catholics (!), the Catholic Church has become synonymous with sexual abuse, and the efforts of the hierarchy to cover it up. Here is a recent sample: In March, a French Cardinal (a Cardinal is a bishop of bishops) was convicted by the authorities of covering up mass abuse, and received a (suspended) jail sentence.1 Last year, EVERY Chilean bishop, representing over 10 million congregants, turned in a letter of resignation over their mismanagement of abuse.2 The Archbishop of Washington DC, arguably the most influential Catholic in the country, was defrocked after a church trial found him guilty of abusing seminarians and minors.3
It’s hard to grasp the extent of it all, but in a single year, the last year of record, in the United States ALONE, 1455 allegations of abuse surfaced, initiated by the ministry ALONE, with $302 Million in settlements paid out!4 This does not even include abuse within Catholic households that don’t involve priests. However, to be totally honest there are 70 million Catholics in the USA (1.2 billion worldwide), so where there are men, there will be sin. Furthermore, Priests abuse at about the same rate (4%) as the general population of school teachers, and men in general.5 However, for self professed intermediaries between man and God, this is still not a glowing statistic. Through it all, promises are often made to change by the secretive Catholic hierarchy, yet this change is elusive.
So what does this have to do with our people? Over the years, it has become evident that abuse in our circles is also not a rare occurrence. One doesn’t have to scratch far beyond the surface to know this. Certain comments I have heard recently, from the Believers among us, surprisingly resemble thoughts and attitudes that are strikingly similar to those I encountered in the Catholic Church. I know this because I lived it, and these ideas are as familiar to me today, as if I heard them in Catechism classes from long ago. Perhaps we, as an Anabaptist people, have retained certain Catholic practices (if not doctrines), more than we have realized. To some, this may be an unnecessarily inflammatory remark, but it is not meant as a condemnation - only as a call to vigilance. So please keep reading, hear me out, and consider the following:
Two Kingdom Theology and “Unum Sanctam”
“And Jesus answering said unto them, Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God
the things that are God's. And they marvelled at him.” (Mk 12:17)
We would all agree that this principle is as true today, as when Jesus first uttered those words. As homeschooled and Christian schooled families, we are quick to (rightly) claim that the teaching of our children is God’s turf: “And ye shall teach them your children, speaking of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.” (Deut 11:19) We are quick to “obey God rather than men,” when Caesar treads on God’s grounds (Acts 5:29). Indeed, we are promised blessings when we endure hardships in giving to God the things that are God’s: “Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.” (Mat 5:11)
But are we as quick to recognize the situations in which we are to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”? Certainly in the area of taxation, none of our people would advocate tax resistance or tolerate tax cheating, no matter how unfair we believe taxes to be. The Apostle Paul further identifies the role of Caesar’s “turf”: “For he [the ruler] is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” (Rom 13:4)
If we can not call sexual abuse among our people “evil,” then is there anything that we can call evil? Do we therefore have the humility to say that all of us have sinned (Rom 3:23) and are capable of evil? Can we also say that when we break secular laws that do not contradict God’s laws, in the eyes of Caesar and God, we are evildoers that fall under the jurisdiction of Caesar and the worldly authorities? If so, then we are consistent in our belief of the Two Kingdom doctrine.
Without a doubt God is sovereign over all. But can we, as a church body, say that while we dwell on this Earth, we are under the authority of BOTH God and secular leaders (whom he ordains also)? If so, let us then be careful to reject a spirit of antinomianism, in which we, as a church, may feel that secular laws are too easily over-ruled, and do not apply.
In the case of reporting sexual abuse, teachers (public and parochial), nurses, EMTs, and firefighters in the congregation (every congregation seems to have at least a few), are legally required to report. Not doing so is against the law.6 Because of the very strong public sentiment to protect children, it is a even felony in some jurisdictions to fail to report.7 To not do so, is to embrace Unum Sanctam. But what about our ministers - aren’t they exempt? Please read on . . .
Priest Penitent Privilege
In America, the laws often recognize what is termed a “Priest-Penitent” privilege.8 Let me explain the terms and context: In the Catholic Church, there is no such thing as a public confession. Confession is one of the Catholic church’s 7 sacraments - acts of faith that adherents do to show God’s grace in their lives. This sacrament is almost universally done in secret during a special meeting with the priest (a “Confessional”), usually at least once a year. As a child and youth, I remember kneeling inside a confessional “booth” (a 3ft x 3ft x7ft box adjoined to a similarly sized box where the priest sat, separated by a 1 ft x 1 ft screen to maintain anonymity) once a year, usually before Easter, where I divulged my sins, literally whispering them into the priest’s ear. Typically, the priest first hears the parishioner’s sins, then directs the person to perform penance (usually a series of prayers), looked on as a sense of self-abasement or mortification (self imposed punishment) to “pay” for the sin, and then the priest finally absolves the person of their sins (forgives them with God’s authority). To Catholics, Confession is the only means of absolution, and the only way to be reconciled with God.9 This “Seal of the Confessional” - without exception - stipulates that under Church law and the threat of excommunication, the sin must be kept secret by the priest.10
Also in America, there is a separation of Church and state, however there is also a very large Catholic population. The authorities in America, as a concession to the Catholic church, have made legal allowances for this solemn pledge of secrecy to stand in court. Yet, in the field of professional (licensed) counseling, every good counselor will lay the groundwork at the initial meeting, that everything is held in confidentiality . . . unless safety becomes an issue. Homicidal or suicidal threats, for example, are not protected. Still, as a physician, I understand the need for this sense of confidentiality, and I rely on it frequently. Yet even this is also limited in so far as when the safety of the patient or public is at stake.
As a physician, confidentiality is important for physical health (as when someone reveals a history of fornication when investigating the reason for an abdominal pain - which can lead to sexually transmitted diseases), but this confidentiality obviously is limited in what it does to address the spiritual needs of the patient. With clergy, even this “Priest - Penitent” relationship is legally limited. It is restricted to what a person says to a clergy member in a ministerial setting only - not hearing it second or third hand. Clergy members, discovering sexual abuse in this manner, for example, are almost always required to report the case to the magistrate. Confidentiality after confronting a person who abused, when finding out by other means, is not usually legally covered.
The more important question is this: what is spiritually covered (as opposed to what is legally covered)? In other words, what is Biblical? Where in the Bible is repentance held to secrecy? Did John the Baptist have confessional booths on the banks of the Jordan? Did Zaccheus wait to repent to Jesus in the privacy - and solitude - of his own home - thus avoiding scrutiny and embarrassment? Just the opposite: David wrote ALL ABOUT his sins throughout the Psalms - for Billions of people to read about over dozens of generations. The apostle Paul (who also called for public corrections in 1 Tim 5:20) specifically wrote about his sin throughout his epistles (Acts 22, Acts 26, Rom 7, 1 Cor 15, Gal 1, 1 Tim 1).
Did these men repent publicly as a matter of self-abasement (as is seen in Catholic penance)? No! It was one little way (compared to the size of the debt forgiven) they could show their appreciation - to glorify God’s goodness in forgiveness . . . and to give fellow pilgrims an opportunity to learn. There was absolutely no attempt to hide the sin, the consequences, or the forgiveness! Why then do we, as Christian pastors and sinners, avail ourselves of a legal loop- hole, meant for Catholics, to shroud sin in secrecy?
If we claim to be without sin [by creating that appearance], we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us. (1 Jn 1:8-10)
Let me be clear - I am NOT calling to compel clergy to reveal the secrets of the confessional. (The Catholic church has made Saints and martyrs of several of their faithful who have gone to their deaths holding on to what they feel is True doctrine - Confessional secrecy.11) What I am saying is that to the Truly repentant Christian, there is no need for it.
The role of ministry is to shepherd the flock toward the one Truth - even if there is a financial, social, or legal cost. In the case of sin, it is to lead the errant to repentance (and so to the Lord’s forgiveness). Let us reject the Catholic secret Confessional, where the appearance of sin is obscured. In doing so, we avoid the serious of risk self-deception, and the deprivation of God’s full forgiveness and cleansing.
Martin Luther, in nailing his list of objections to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church, mentions Indulgences, and the abuses it brings about, in no less than 30 of the 95 Theses. It was a BIG deal, and a major impetus to the Reformation. The word “Indulgence” comes from the Latin indulgeo, “to be kind or tender” - in how the Church deals with sin. This sounds very Christian, though in practical terms, what it amounted to was payments made by the affluent to literally buy, through money given to the Church, a shorter sentence in Purgatory.
While he does not outright condemn Indulgences, Luther’s Theses describe the errors of it:
#28: “It is certain that when money clinks in the money chest, greed and avarice can be increased; but when the church intercedes, the result is in the hands of God alone.”
#36: “Any truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without indulgence letters.”
#52: “It is vain to trust in salvation by indulgence letters, even though the indulgence commissary, or even the pope, were to offer his soul as security.”
Why do I mention this concept of Indulgences? If we had to boil it down, the idea is that affluence and influence is used a means of diminishing the consequences of sin. How does that apply to us in the Plain community? It has been said on many occasions that a brother can not face the authorities, because he has a family to support, a business to run. Sometimes it is a big Christian organization [or their managers] that can not, without pressure, admit guilt in the mismanagement of sexual sin, because of a stated first obligation to employees and donors. Doing so, they reasoned, would open themselves to civil (and perhaps criminal) liability.
In modern terms, they are “too big to fail.” So, it is thought, they must be propped up, just as Uzzah attempted to “help” the Lord by righting the ark of the Covenant, lest everything would come crashing down. The name “Uzzah” means “strength,” but in reality it is a false strength, because it implies that God is not quick enough, strong enough, knowledgeable enough to deal with the upheavals of life, on His own terms.
The Bible says, “And David became angry because of the Lord’s outbreak against Uzzah...” (2 Sam 8, NKJV) Let us pray that we do not become likewise angered, but humbled, when God strikes down our feeble attempts to prop things up, or “help” God on our own terms. Let us not be surprised when He allows those efforts to come under a barrage of criticism and scrutiny from without, just as Uzzah was stricken from without - out of (seemingly) nowhere. Our God is INDEED big enough and great enough to care for our every need!
Absolution of Sins
According to the Catholic church, “Priest[s] alone can administer the sacrament of Penance (Confession).” (Canon Law 965)12 Furthermore, “Confession is the only means of absolution, and the only way to be reconciled with God.” (Canon Law 960) In other words, it is only through a priest that Catholics find absolution (the forgiveness of sins and the release from punishment) of their sins.
Clearly, we can all agree that this view is not based on scripture: “For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus . . .” (1 Tim 2:5) It is also easy to show that when we repent, He freely forgives, drawing near to Him: “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you - even Jesus.” (Acts 3:19-20) No priest required!
In His mercy, he washes our sins away: David confidently states: “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.” (Ps 51:7) Where we may be erring, is
The effect of this is that since God no longer remembers the sin, then neither should we . . . or the victim. This places the victim in the position of needing to not only forgive the offender, but to also not mention it again as soon as he repents, asks the Lord for, and receives forgiveness . . . or else they are accused of being in a state of unforgiveness. (They must then carry this burden alone, and in silence.) Too often, I have heard of and heard from victims, most often young Christians just starting their walk, reprimanded for this sin of unforgiveness. On this subject of the the washing of sin as being the same as sin being forgotten by God, I have 2 thoughts:
First, is this view Scriptural? In the Parable of the unforgiving servant, the King had forgiven the large debt of the first servant, only to find out that that servant had not forgiven the debts of the second servant. Though the King forgave the large debt, he did not forget the sin, in then condemning the first servant for his unforgiveness. (Mat 18) Additionally, with the exception of Isa 44:23 (which specifically references the Covenant Prophesy of Israel), ALL mention of blotting out and “remember[ing] sin no more” are in the future tense (Isa 43:25, Jer 31:34, Acts 3:19, Heb 8:12, and Heb 10:17) - as in the day of judgement. This makes sense. The effects and consequences of the sin (sometimes generational) have not disappeared, so the sin obviously is not “as if it had never been.” Additionally, it is impossible for an omniscient God to not know of something that has not faded from our own memories.
Second, we are commanded to forsake the swearing of oaths. (Jas 5:12) For in swearing oaths, we take it upon ourselves to speak for God, falsely saying that “as God is my witness, I testify that what I am saying is true.” When someone in authority admonishes a victim for the sin of unforgiveness, because he or she will not quietly forgive and forget “as if the sin had never been,” is this not proclaimed in the same spirit as the oath taker?: “As God is my witness, I testify that God has forgiven this brother . . . and because God has forgiven him, and stricken the
The Catholics believe that their priests have this insight, as well as the authority to render judgement. It is how they justify the ability of their priests to govern the Absolution of Sin. Better would it be for us to lead the sinner to repentance and minister to the offended - most likely baby Christians or children who are not yet even saved, so that they can come to the point of forgiveness (the release of the right to repay a hurt). It is not our role to read the heart of man or usurp the judgement of Jesus: "For not even the Father judges anyone, but He has given all judgment to the Son . . .” (Jn 5:22)
Finally, the Catholic Pope stakes the claim to infallibility - that is the inability to be wrong when declaring and designing doctrine. The errant doctrine outlined in this article alone shows that this can not be so.
I am happy to say that I have confidence in our ministry because they humbly accept their fallibility. It is a blessing to have a ministry that hears the the brothers and sisters, is keenly aware of what is going on in their flock, and attends to their sheep “without preferring one before another, doing nothing by partiality.” (1 Tim 5:21) No one in the church is held to be more valuable than another, be they voiceless child or an apparently stalwart member. A godly ministry will not make themselves immune from sincere, respectful, and honest inquiry. This is how “Iron sharpeneth iron ...” (Prv 27:17) It has been a blessing to have been a part of church bodies that embrace this concept, and a discouragement where it has not.
But this is where any further comparison ends. The Catholic religion is fatally burdened by placing faith on a single, fallible man. Sincere practicing Catholics are reaching the uncomfortable realization that that one man can lead a whole denomination deeply astray - with little recourse. It’s like witnessing a slow train wreck. We do well to reflect on the blessing and protection of His holy word, Sola Scrpitura, and remain vigilant against straying from it, lest we follow the same path to apostasy: “Every word of God is pure: he is a shield unto them that put their trust in him. Add thou not unto his words, lest he reprove thee, and thou be found a liar.” (Prv 30:5-6)
Let us pray, therefore, that our church leaders (and yet all of us!) are spared from this spirit of infallibility. That we all open ourselves to correction and teaching, and that we never forget the words of Jesus Christ our Lord, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” (Jn 14:6)
2 https://www.apnews.com/33b208ef4bc84576a503b059629607db/Chile%27s-bishops-resign-en- masse-over-sex-abuse-cover-up
3 https://www.reuters.com/article/us-pope-abuse-mccarrick/former-u-s-cardinal-mccarrick-defrocked- for-sex-crimes-idUSKCN1Q508L
4 https://www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/catholic-church-reports-number-of-sex-abuse-allegations-has- doubled
5 https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/do-the-right-thing/201908/top-10-myths-about-clergy- abuse-in-the-catholic-church
10 "Catechism of the Catholic Church - The sacrament of penance and reconciliation". www.vatican.va.
11 https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/these-priests-were-martyred-for-refusing-to-violate-the- seal-of-confession-44847
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