Saints, Sinners and Sexual Misconduct in the Church

While news about clergy sexual misconduct sometimes seems to be on the rise, such stories are not new to the history of mankind.  We find in the Septuagint Book of Daniel the story of Susanna (written ca 165BC).  The narrative is about a young woman who two dirty old men – they also happen to be honored members of society – attempt to entrap and force her to have sex with them.  The men are judges and they attempt to use their power and position in society to sexually harass abuse Susanna.  The Prophet Daniel comes to Susanna’s rescue and publicly discredits the two men, revealing their evil plot to rape Susanna.

St. Gregory the Theologian (d. 391AD) mentions the story of  Susanna in a sermon in which he also tells the story of the Christian virgin woman, Justina.  Justina too is the victim of sexual harassment by a Bishop named Cyprian who inexplicably is overcome by his passion for her and is intent on engaging in clergy sexual misconduct.

According to church tradition, both Cyprian and Justina are later martyred in 304AD.  Here is the story as told by Nazianzen:

“There once lived a virgin of noble ancestry, endowed with the most perfect manners.  Hear ye and exult, O virgins, and all who honor modesty and love purity.  For this story is an elegy to both categories.

The virgin, Justina, was extraordinarily beautiful to behold.  Of her divine David sings together with us, saying: ‘The daughter of the king is clothed in beauty’ (Ps 45:14).  True spouse of Christ, hidden beauty, living image of God, inviolate sanctuary erected to the godhead, inaccessible sacred ground, enclosed garden, sealed fountain (thus Solomon also adds something – Song 4:12), reserved for Christ alone.

I do not know why or how the great Cyprian was seized with passion for this absolutely uncompromising and virtuous virgin.   And yet his greedy eyes, which of all the organs of the body are the most lively and eager, reached out to grasp even the most untouchable things.  But Cyprian was not only possessed with love for her; he also tempted her.  What singular stupidity, if he was hoping to seduce her, or rather what gross shamelessness in trying anything of the kind, and persisting in his attempts!

The devil also, from the beginning, insinuated himself into paradise to tempt the first man and stood amidst the angels when he sought to tempt Job: he did not even hesitate in the presence of the Lord himself, who was to defeat and condemn him definitively by his death; he tried to tempt him who cannot be affected by any temptation when, in the outward appearance of God, the devil saw the second Adam and, as it were, claimed to make him capitulate as had the first.  He was totally unaware that, by attacking the humanity of Christ, he had struck a blow against the Godhead.  Why then is it strange that, by means of Cyprian’s passion, he makes an attempt against the holy soul and virtuous body of Justina?       . . .

But pure and divine souls are quick to discover in this the sport of the devil, even though he is very subtle in deceiving and various in his attacks.  Thus the maid, as soon as she noticed the presence of evil and sensed the threat, what did she do and what method did she oppose to the artifice of the evil one?   Despairing of all other remedies, she took refuge in God and against this detestable passion took as her defender her husband, that is, the same who had freed Susanna from the wicked elders and saved Thekla from a tyrannical courtier and from an even more tyrannical mother.

But who is that husband?  He is Christ, who strengthens our spirits and raises up those who are drowning; he hurls the legion of wicked spirits into the abyss; he snatches away the just man from the pit in which he had been placed as food for lions and, stretching out his hands, binds the proud; he frees from the whale the fleeing prophet who, even while inside the whale, had kept the faith.  And, in Assyria, he frees the children from the flames; they are kept cool by an angel, and to the three children a fourth is added.

Recalling these and other circumstances and imploring the Virgin mary to bring her assistance, since she, too, was a virgin and had been in danger, she entrusted herself to the remedy of fasting and sleeping on the ground.”  (in Luigi Gambero’s MARY AND THE FATHERS OF THE CHURCH, pp 166-167)

In the story of Justina, St. Gregory Nazianzen acknowledging that even a saint and martyr can be overcome by sexual lust.   St. Gregory asks why we should be surprised about sexual misconduct when we know that the devil is active in our world.   There is no attempt by St. Gregory to deny the story, cover it up or make it less than the evil it is; rather he publicly proclaims it in order to overcome such sin and evil in the Church.    Such stories remind us that clergy sexual abuse in the church is best overcome when we openly acknowledge its existence and expose it rather than by attempting to cover it up.  The story is scandalous, but it is a story that needs to be told to help protect the flock and the public.  The Church whose sole purpose for existence is to proclaim the truth, must not shy away from telling the truth about sin even in its own leadership.   Telling the truth about ourselves is part of being real and the church is supposed to be dealing with reality, not with mythologies or misinformation, nor with pretense or fiction.  We have a sacrament of the Church – Confession – devoted to telling the truth about our weaknesses, temptations, sins and faults.  There is a prayer in the Orthodox tradition which says, “I offer up my wicked and lawless acts, triumphing over them and publishing them.”   We don’t triumph over sin by denying it exists in our lives, but rather by openly confessing it and then spending a life time of repentance to overcome it.

St. Gregory’s story of St. Justina is interesting for another reason.  According to Gambero it is the first known instance reported in church history (304AD) of someone calling upon the Virgin Mary as an intercessor and a help.

For links to other blogs I’ve posted on this topic see Blogs on Sexual Misconduct in the Church.

4 thoughts on “Saints, Sinners and Sexual Misconduct in the Church

  1. Pingback: Blogs on Sexual Misconduct in the Church | Fr. Ted's Blog

  2. You say, “In the story of Justina, St. Gregory Nazianzen acknowledging that even a saint and martyr can be overcome by sexual lust.” But it should be made clear that St. Gregory is speaking of St. Cyprian before he was a Christian. When St. Cyprian was tempting St. Justina HE WAS NOT A BISHOP. He was not even a Christian; he was a pagan magician. After trying to seduce her (first on behalf of someone else, and then for himself) he saw that she was victorious by means of the sign of the cross. That is when he repented, got baptized, and was ordained a Bishop. He was converted by the prayers of St. Justina. He acted sinfully toward her before he was a Christian, not after.
    For a fuller account see here:

  3. Pingback: Orthodox Collective

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