Forgiveness and clergy sexual abuse l Worship


Last updated 2/20/2019 at Noon

Last week, the Houston Chronicle reported hundreds of cases of sexual misconduct among pastors and leaders in Southern Baptist Churches.

They describe misconduct in the last 20 years that ranges from possession of child pornography to aggravated sexual assault, from online solicitation of a minor, to rape.

Victims are children, teens, and adults. Some say their faith has been destroyed, some suffer chronic anxiety and depression. Some have committed suicide. Many of them blame the Church, as an institution, for its failure to identify, discipline and remove these predators from positions of leadership and trust in local congregations.

The Roman Catholics and the Southern Baptists are not the only ones with these kinds of problems. Communities of faith of all kinds wrestle with the responsibility of training, vetting and monitoring the behavior of those who provide direct ministry with their members.

What does forgiveness mean in the face of such behavior? How does a church “forgive” someone who has deeply violated another person and betrayed the trust and office they’ve been called to exercise?

Decades ago, I remember a County Prosecutor saying to me, “You’re in the forgiveness ‘business’ right? Aren’t you supposed to make everything better for this guy?”

He was talking about a member of the church I was serving at the time. He had been arrested for sexually assaulting his girlfriend’s young daughter. The question set me back on my heels.

Whatever “forgiveness” is, it is not about allowing a dangerous person access to former and future victims. Whatever “forgiveness” is, it is not pretending that harm hasn’t taken place. Whatever “forgiveness” is, it is not an institution protecting or moving a predator from one place to another. Whatever “forgiveness” is, it is not blaming the victim for confusing or seducing a perpetrator.

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Asking whether God can forgive should not be confused with asking whether a minister should be allowed to remain in a position of trust. We get tangled up in our impulse to be polite and gracious at the very time we need to be clear headed and courageous in our care for those who have been exploited by clergy.

Only victims who have been harmed can forgive, not churches, not governments, not institutions. Forgiveness is God’s business and only those individuals who have been wounded can extend it to those who have hurt them.

For the Church to truly be a community of both forgiveness and justice, we might start with taking seriously the reality that some people hurt other people. We are called to protect one another, even if it means bringing to light the ugly reality of clergy sexual misconduct and abuse. Only then can the conversation about real forgiveness find a beginning.


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