I have never liked the idea of being a member of the ‘clergy’. Most weeks I’m not sure why that is. This week, though, it’s obvious. Just a few days ago a grand jury in Pennsylvania released a report on sexual abuse by Catholic clergy in that state. The report wasn’t only about the abuse itself, but also about the way members of the clergy worked to protect priests who perpetrated these crimes, drew attention away from these matters and generally made prosecution difficult. As helpful as the report itself is, it appears that there will be few, if any, new criminal prosecutions or civil suits. This, despite the fact that there are more than 1000 victims. The crimes simply happened too long ago for perpetrators to still be legally vulnerable.
Additional prosecution is also being made difficult because of influence exerted by the church. Leading clergy have argued that it would be inappropriate for the contemporary church to be held accountable for acts perpetuated by a previous generation. While it is true that the litigious environment in the US has overflowed sane boundaries, the moral argument run out by church leaders in this case is silly. The contemporary church continually benefits from the good work and sacrifice of previous generations. Why should it not be liable in some way for their failings as well? Why not do more to restore those harmed by previous generations?
It also appears to be the case that politicians at the state level in Pennsylvania are reluctant to make changes to the statute of limitations that would allow for more serious consequences for perpetrators and those who protected them. Clergy in the state and Pennsylvanian Christians at large must do more to call these members of the clergy to account. They must make it clear to elected officials that there is nothing politically to be gained by maintaining legal barriers to accountability. It would have been nice if the church had appropriate governance and accountability standards in place to police its clergy. Clearly, the opposite was true. It is now up to the state to hold clergy to account and Pennsylvanians must make this easier not harder.
Alas, non-Catholic Christians cannot be self-congratulating in this situation, it was just last week that the board and lead pastors of Willow Creek resigned in recognition that they had failed to hold the church’s founding pastor to account. Blinded by the idolatry of entrepreneurialism, that extremely influential church also lacked real accountability structures and governance mechanisms that could have protected employees and parishioners alike. The church and its clergy are obviously not the only individuals or institutions to have such profound problems. Not even close. Even so, it’s a shameful week to be a member of the clergy and a shameful week to be associated with the church. It’s even a shameful week to be a (former) member of the electorate in my home state of Pennsylvania.