Zero Tolerance in clergy sexual misconduct will yield the impossibility of a second chance as a clergyman. This is not because clergy sexual misconduct is the unforgiveable sin. Rather it is because the second chance for clergy guilty of sexual misconduct is the opportunity to spend the remaining time of their life in repentance, which they obviously failed to do in their life as a clergyman. We each are called by Christ to repentance. Some are called to live out their repentance as clergy. If they fail to live that repentant life and engage in sexual misconduct, they are given a second chance to live out their repentance away from the clerical office. This is specifically true if one used one’s office and the power that comes with that office to create opportunities for sexual misconduct.
Years ago I heard a phrase used about alcoholics: one drink is too many, two is not enough. It of course deals with the notion that an alcoholic must avoid that first drink because once they’ve had it, they are already down a path in which no number of drinks can satiate the alcoholic.
The alcoholic’s life is a world in which “second chance” takes on a new meaning. Giving the alcoholic a second chance cannot mean allowing them to drink one more time to see if they can control the drinking. That’s known as enabling the alcoholism. The second chance is giving them the opportunity to stay in your life because they are staying sober which means they are abstaining from alcohol.
This concept of a second chance makes sense to many when dealing with the alcoholic. We learn that ‘second chance’ does not mean watching them drink to see if there will be a different result, but rather the second chance is watching to see if they will stay abstinent and therefore sober on that day. It is by their sobriety that they win back the trust of those around them. This comes when they abdicate any claim that they be given chances to show they can drink and remain in control. They admit they are really powerless and not able to control the drinking and so must surrender any claim to ever possessing this power to drink again.
It is this understanding of a second chance which we are also grappling with in the church in dealing with sexual misconduct. We don’t put the person back in a position where they can abuse power to engage in sexual misconduct. The sobriety they need is to keep them out of the position of being able to abuse power. Sobriety for them means avoiding those situations in which temptation to engage in sexual misconduct can occur. Clerical power can be intoxicating to some.
We see this idea that if one has abused power he/she should not be given that power back has gained acceptance in many places in our society. One such organization is in the U.S. military. The recent scandals involving prominent military leaders which led to their losing their commands is an example of what is socially expected.
Greg Myre of NPR in What’s the Punishment for Adultery these Days? deals with public officials caught in a sex scandal. Myre says the best way to deal with such scandal is for the guilty party to “Confess Before The Media Break The Story”. Interesting advice for a non-sacramental organization, but certainly one would think an idea that church leaders would acknowledge and follow. The worse thing to do according to crisis management experts is to deny the story.
Myre says the right thing for a public official to do after engaging in sexual misconduct is to resign immediately. This is especially true if one is involved in a line of work which depends on public trust. Myre writes:
“The military has to have ‘higher standards because of their need to trust each other and to lead people in very dangerous circumstances,’ Richard Kohn, who studies civilian-military relations at the University of North Carolina, told NPR’s Morning Edition.”
So too the church has to have such higher standards. Myre’s conclusion is
“Once tarnished in a sex scandal, government officials and military officers need to find a new career.”
There is little doubt that the role of priest or bishop in the church involves public trust, and the church’s standards certainly should not be less than the standards of secular society.
Recently I read an email from attorney Bob Koory in which he described his own thoughts about the standards the church should hold for its clergy. I liked the way he worded his thoughts and got his permission to quote the email here:
“My own view is that zero tolerance should mean zero tolerance. The problem with anything less than that is in my view twofold:
First, the legal problem that you reference: While as a practical matter, in my legal experience, an arbitrary decision is harder to defend in court than a reasoned decision, cases are always based upon 20-20 hindsight. Bad decision, no matter how long debated or reasoned, are never easy to defend and can always be prosecuted on the basis that the Church simply looked away or through rose colored glasses because the cleric was a hierarch or priest of some standing.
Jurors in my experience apply a great deal of common sense and are likely to say that the best proof that it was a bad decision, or poorly reasoned decision, is that the perpetrator struck again. I’m sure you would agree that it would not be hard to find an expert who would testify, with studies to support the testimony, that there was a significant possibility (probability) that the perpetrator would repeat his/her actions and the Church knew or should have know of that likelihood and should have taken such disciplinary action to insure that it would not happen, e.g., removal from employment or in the case of a cleric, suspension or defrocking.
Unfortunately, with respect to the legal concern, the perpetrator becomes in a way a walking time bomb, with those concerned about the possible victims and/or legal concerns, never knowing when it’s going to go off, but in the heart of hearts knowing that there is always the potential it will.
The second problem is the perception of the action view from within the Church. While certainly one is inclined to recognize the reality that we are all sinners and likely to sin, and that we need “second chances”, in my view, the response of the Church must also recognize that since we are sinners we are constantly falling and getting up again. The problem is when a perpetrator does that he not only causes injury to a victim but also to the Church. If it is a cleric, all clerics are tainted, and the Church itself suffers from the impression that once again the Church failed to act appropriately.
Moreover, many laity, using their common like experiences, are likely to conclude that if the cleric did the act and was caught, how many times did he do it and was not caught. We know that studies show that perpetrators usually have acted several (in some cases dozens or hundreds of times) before they are caught. There is also the concern that once through therapy the perpetrator would simply resume his old behavior.
Finally is the view that some may hold of how can this perpetrator now speak to us of the sanctity of marriage or of the virtue of honesty. This is where the concerns are that the act has now become an impediment to his priesthood. That is not to say the person might not repent and become a great saint, but only that he should no longer do so as a cleric. Many other professions have zero tolerance policies and for good reasons.”
The other mathematical truth of sexual misconduct is that anything less than zero tolerance tends to multiply the instances of misconduct and abuse.
“He who winks the eye causes trouble,
but he who boldly reproves makes peace.”
Links to my other blogs on church sexual misconduct can be found at Sexual Misconduct in the Church Blogs.