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Alcorn: Put focus on victims of sexual abuse

Published 11:50am Monday, August 6, 2012

Two names from Pennsylvania in recent news coverage should shamefully remind us of the same lesson, which is terribly important to learn and use. The names are the late Joe Paterno, who had retired as Penn State’s head football coach, and the other is Father William Lynn, former aide to the Roman Catholic archbishop in Philadelphia. Whatever value there may be in protecting an institution from scandal, the overwhelming goal is to care for the needs of victims of sexual misconduct and help them recover.

Both men are guilty without either themselves perpetrating any sexual offense. The offense is protecting perpetrators — and thereby their institutions — when the concern should have been hurrying to the aid of their victims and helping them recover from abuse for which they had responsibility. While we must be fair even with perpetrators and avoid vindictiveness, our overwhelming concern must be the welfare of victims. Whatever aid and support is due to offenders, it must not be at the cost of the victims. Yet, this appears to be the single most serious and frequent reason offenders have been getting away with their behavior and victimizing yet others.

Through the years, I have been called in by Protestant churches of different denominations to consult when their pastor has become guilty of sexual misconduct. In listening to their lay leaders, I have accumulated most unpleasant data about the frequency and seriousness of this tragedy. It has not only deeply hurt the victims as well as the clergy, it has inflicted harm on the churches from which some may never recover.

It does appear that offenses have occurred more frequently in Catholic churches than others, and some people are tempted to conclude there is something about Catholicism that causes this. Accusing fingers have been peremptorily pointed at the doctrine and practice of celibacy for the religious. Without agreeing that celibacy is necessary, I know from extensive conversations with priests and observations of them and also nuns that celibacy is not a cause. Thousands have led perfectly moral and deeply spiritual lives in their celibacy.

What seems to be the greatest weakness of the Catholic Church is otherwise of one of its greatest strengths, i.e., its hierarchical structure and great political power. It can take care of its own and it does so — sometimes with a vengeance.

Protestant churches and Jewish synagogues lack this kind of strength, and their weakness comes from the other direction. The very lack of structure and limits on authority makes it relatively easy for offenders to become anonymous and slip into obscurity. Priests can be reassigned to where they are unknown, but pastors and rabbis can pop up where they are unknown.

My research yields the shocking fact that nearly 10 percent of protestant clergy have sexual contact with someone other than a spouse while in the ministry, more than 30 percent engage in sexual behavior that they themselves consider inappropriate, and more than 15 percent qualify as addicted to internet pornography. Worse, by the time clergy sexual misconduct is discovered in a church, an average of seven women have been victimized.

My experience and observations led me a year ago to write a white paper on this concern and circulate it among selected pastoral leaders nationally for their views. Among other responses was the request from a seminary president in another state to conduct a symposium of such pastoral leaders to discuss the issue. He asked me to plan and lead this conversation, which we did in May.

Perhaps the most actionable suggestion of the day was to stop trying to protect the offending clergy and focus on helping their victims. “Protecting,” moreover, usually takes the form of cover-ups, which are as deceitful as they are harmful.

One resolve of the symposium was to create systems by which to identify offenders and then assist their recovery if they will accept it and prevent them from being in another opportune situation if they will not. Above all, there is the concern to minister to the victims.

We intend to provide information and practical assistance, but it must begin with the individual congregation where the misconduct occurs. This problem can be resolved, but churches must accept responsibility and hold their clergy accountable.


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