When the NY TIMES reported the story, Bishop is Indicted; Charge is Failing to Report Abuse, it caught the attention of many people who are working in their denominations dealing with clergy sexual abuse. The efforts of law officials in the U.S. to help protect children from sexual abuse in churches has turned to making a concerted effort to hold ranking church officials responsible for what their clergy do. The Kansas City bishop in this case is not charged with sexual abuse himself, but with not doing enough to stop abuse and an abuser among his clergy.
Historically there had been a standing practice in churches to deal with cases of clergy sexual abuse, especially pedophilia, as quietly (secretly) as is possible and to suppress any publicity of the case. The supposed justification of this was that such behaviors were absolutely rare anomalies and so there was no use scandalizing the faithful over the behavior of the very uncommon abhorrent clergyman. Unfortunately in the mix was also the practice of trying to save the clergymen’s ordination. And in order to avoid having to publicly explain anything (for example why a clergyman was defrocked), churches frequently moved these aberrant clergymen to new locations (no defrocking, no explanation needed) and in effect spread the disease to new communities. [One wonders why they didn’t see as a means to prevent scandal defrocking these misbehaving clergy. But somehow having to defrock clergy was more scandalous to church leadership than was having clergy misbehave in new locations].
Of course in their new assignments, the church hierarchy seemed to think it was just fine not to inform the new parishes why the clergyman was being moved to their community. Thus the parishioners naively and wrongly assumed that the clergy were totally trustworthy and that the hierarchy was looking out for them.
The change occurring now in U.S. law which holds bishops accountable for the misbehavior (and sometimes criminal misbehavior) of their clergy is forcing churches to acknowledge that trying to deal with clergy misconduct through internally secret methods is unacceptable. If we are going to protect our children and the vulnerable and fragile members of our flocks, then we have to much more publicly deal with clergy abuse and misconduct especially through defrocking the clergy guilty of misconduct and abuse. In a sense the new laws are going to force churches to live up to the Church’s supposedly high standards of moral conduct for its clergy.
Of course today a motive stronger than high moral standards at work in the church is the fear of devastatingly expensive civil lawsuits. That has become the motivating factor for many churches to change their lax practices. Churches are coming to recognize that no matter how much it hurts the church and scandalizes the faithful to admit to sexual abuse in the church, the pain and damage of having the abuse and its cover up discovered later is far more devastating. Even in the church money talks. And though St. Paul condemned civil lawsuits between Christians (1 Corinthians 6:7), such lawsuits have forced church hierarchy to pay attention to those members of their flock injured by the clergy. Up to this point bishops frequently saw it as their duty to defend the clergy from such allegations, now they have to realize that those members of the church injured by abuse are every bit as much members of the church and as important to the Church as their clergy.
There is another lesson to which priests and bishops need to pay attention: Law and its standards change. The bishop in this case and the police chief may want to argue that they were following what had previously been thought of the standards for dealing with these issues. But because law in a democracy is subject to change based on changing standards and ideals current in society, we cannot comfort ourselves with thinking “we were following our Best Practices” or we were following the current Policy Standard and Procedures (PSP). Such claims may not be enough if the church’s current Best Practices and PSP are not up to the existing standards of law. What the new court cases mean is that having correct Policy Standards and Procedures are not enough – SOMEONE (namely the bishop in a hierarchical church) must be practicing due diligence in enforcing the PSPs and ensuring compliance by all clergy and parishes.
PSPs regarding sexual misconduct are undergoing intense scrutiny and serious change in our country. People are angry and no longer willing to tolerate what they view as incompetence, negligence, or under reacting by church authorities in cases involving sexual misconduct in the church. The mood in the country, which is now in law and in the courts, is that the church cannot passively wait for the civil authorities to deal with crime in the church. The expectation is for the church to actively and aggressively investigate allegations and proactively root out offenders. This means when warning signs are noticed – the clergyman may not even have broken a law YET – the church is going to be expected to deal firmly with that clergyman, removing them from office in order to protecti children, the vulnerable, and the fragile. Church leaders are going to have to monitor their clergy more than currently is being done. For example the background check that Oxford Documents does – looking at credit history, all brushes with the law, driving record – may have to become standard fare in the Church. Many church denominations already have acknowledged that sexually misbehaving clergy often have troubles in many areas of their lives – their marriages, their credit, frequent moves, relational troubles with parishioners, bad driving records, etc. There are warning signs which the courts are going to start demanding churches pay attention to in the lives of their clergy. [Some denominational officials say they have in fact come to recognize that sexually misbehaving clergy frequently have credit problems – they run up huge porn bills on their computers, they have expensive sexual dalliances with prostitutes or have to pay off people to keep them silent or are being black mailed. If the state comes to recognize these as legitimate warning signs of future sexual misconduct, the church is going to have to pay attention to these things in its clergy.]