Clergy sexual predators thrive on secrecy. They love to manipulate Christ’s call to private dialogue as the first step in confronting church problems. But they are less fond of the next three steps mandated by Matthew 18.
Consider the full text of Christ’s formula for conflict resolution (verses 15-17): “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.”
We see four steps here, each intensifying accountability for offenders who persist in resisting repentance: (1) One-on-one private confrontation. If that doesn’t work, (2) involvement of one or two others. If resistance persists, (3) disclosure involving the church family. When all of that fails, (4) disfellowship from the community of faith.
Abusers obviously want to avoid any of that accountability. When evidence of their perfidy emerges and someone in the church confronts them, they usually hide behind the privacy provision of step 1. They even seize the offensive by demanding: “Why are you talking to me about this gossip? If this woman* has a problem with me, let her come to me alone and we will resolve it privately, like Jesus said to do in Matthew 18.”
Such manipulation of Christ’s counsel can devastate the victim as much as the sexual abuse itself. She should never be expected to privately confront her abuser—the inherent power imbalance between clergy and parishioner bode s an unsatisfactory outcome. Far better for her to enlist a trusted person of influence—either a local lay leader or denominational official—to confront the offender on her behalf.
Last week my phone rang from someone in distress. He had become aware of clergy sexual abuse regarding a minor, so he alerted authorities. Soon friends of the abuser hammered him with condemnation for supposedly violating 1 Timothy 5:19: “Do not receive an accusation against an elder except from two or three witnesses.” These enablers admonished the reporter of abuse that he had violated the privacy rights of the pastor. They conveniently overlooked the very next verse: “Those who are sinning rebuke in the presence of all, that the rest also may fear.”
When a clergy predator abuses a minor, failure to report is not only spiritually derelict but illegal as well, since the law of the land mandates notifying civil authorities. And in certain jurisdictions, a clergy sexual relationship with an adult parishioner is criminal activity that needs to be reported. It then falls upon the civil authorities—ordained by God (see Romans 13:1-4)—to determine whether the accused is guilty or innocent. When the alleged immorality is not a civil crime, the church must implement the Matthew 18 accountability process that Jesus enjoined.
When privately confronted, a predator tends to deny everything. If evidence becomes too compelling to deny or ignore, he usually claims it was a consensual relationship. (The fact is that, given the inherent power imbalance, the pastor is guilty of sexual misconduct even if an adult parishioner initiates it.)
So the process must proceed to step 2, enlarging the accountability circle by one or two members. Usually the predator’s resistance persists, which necessitates the next step, involving the larger church body. Jesus commanded, “Tell it to the church.” This must be done prudently and appropriately, yet with clarity.
Without such public disclosure, rumors swirl around the church as the predator spins his own perverted account of what he did. Finally, the last resort of a desperate predator to escape discipline is manipulating the process through intimidation, false guilt or self-pity.
Even if the predator pastor is severed from employment, there can be no closure without disclosure of what he did. Otherwise the congregation is left in confusion, with many members blaming the victim for entrapping their dear pastor and destroying his ministry. Meanwhile, without public knowledge of his sin, the predator typically exports his abuse to his next pastorate and defiles other victims. One lesson learned from the pedophile epidemic among Catholic clergy is that predators usually keep repeating their abuse, so appropriate public disclosure is essential in stopping them.
Friends of the predator who resist disclosing his sin fancy themselves as being loving like Jesus, who said: “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first” (John 8:7). They totally miss Christ’s point—He was defending the victim, not the clergy predators who wanted to defame and destroy her!
When a predator pastor escapes disclosure, not only is the victim denied vindication but also the congregation is left in chaos and disunity. Moreover, failure to administer “tough love” even robs the offender of motivation to come clean and repent.
*Although the victim is typically a female, increasingly males are victims as well.
Part 2 of this series will address how disciplinary process should proceed in a way that avoids further damaging the victim and congregation, while also minimizing legal peril.