Faith in Action

Clergy sexual abuse demands a National Day of Repentance on behalf of the victims

Brad Bloom
Brad Bloom

Americans are engulfed in a hideous crisis about sexual abuse.

Institutional religions are finally owning up to the long-held secret that some clergy hierarchies hide the sexual predators in their ranks, knowing what they have done to their parishioners, and still protect them and their crimes, regardless of the impact upon the congregants they supposedly serve in their houses of worship.

There are examples of rabbis who have done bad things and taken advantage of their congregants in sexual matters. It is for us a tragedy and an embarrassment profaning the very tenets of Judaism.

The Catholic Church continues to face the pernicious reality that their problems with clergy have not been resolved.

Pope Francis was quoted as saying at a recent conference on clergy sexual abuse that clergy who commit acts of sexual abuse are “tools of Satan.” Recently two Cardinals have either been convicted of sexual predatory crimes against children and defrocked for having molested children themselves, or hidden their sins and those of other clergy under their supervision from justice.

The Southern Baptist Convention, America’s largest Protestant denomination, has begun to feel the public backlash against religious leaders for past actions of hiding the sins of its clergy who were sexual predators, and ignoring the pleas of the laity to address these abuses of power. Newspaper reports say that more than 700 cases of sexual abuse were committed by more than 400 church leaders since 1998.

The results of this kind of behavior are being felt in the drop-off of congregant affiliation within these two denominations.

In the case of the Catholic Church, the Pew Survey concludes that the population of Roman Catholics in America has dropped by more than 3 million members since 2007. The Southern Baptist Convention also has experienced a decline in attendance.

These denominations are not the only guilty religious movements. They are simply high profile religious groups. Today, the non-affiliated turn away from institutions of religion because of politics, money or theology. Yet, the issue of sexual abuse and covering up for the transgressions by professional clergy and volunteer leaders diminishes the credibility of all religions.

Clearly, every religion’s clergy hierarchy must conduct thorough, transparent and fair investigations when an accusation is made. The community of worshipers must have confidence that their religious leaders will refer those who commit these crimes to the justice system.

Instead of only caring about legal exposure, religious leaders and their institutional advisers should demonstrate the greatest concern for healing the wounds of parishioners and their families who have been attacked, raped and abused over the years.

Every seminary in this nation must have educational programs for seminarians to learn about the consequences of engaging in these types of behaviors.

New liturgy or prayers must be written to address these unconscionable sins and their impact upon worshipers. Such prayers must be read in the context of public worship services as well as in the privacy of one’s home.

If the clergy in America’s houses of worship are serious about making a difference and facing up to, and taking responsibility for, the sins of omission and commission of sexual abuse, then it requires a full-scale repentance, not only to God but an honest and public repentance by leadership to the worshiping community.

In fact I would like to see America’s religious community join together and create a National Day of Repentance on behalf of the victims of sexual abuse by clergy. If we do this we shine a brighter light and expose the unrelenting pain that survivors of sexual abuse live with every day.

We need to call out this problem in broad daylight once and for all. The National Day of Repentance will make us feel uncomfortable by acknowledging that in God’s name and in the name of our own religions, some religious leaders have perpetrated these unspeakable transgressions behind a veil of clerical sanctity.

Is it everyone’s religious duty to own this problem in our faith tradition? Is it our moral obligation to restore hope for those who still suffer in silence and who live each day with the fear that no one will believe them?

Parishioners who have not experienced these sins can no longer afford to cover their eyes or ignore the suffering of others. Lay leaders and congregants who ignore clergy sex abuse in their own houses of worship or in the national movements they belong to ultimately perpetuate the problem in the long run. They are just as much a part of the problem as the clergy who perpetrate these ungodly acts against children and young adults.

The Bible has examples of sexual abuse of young people, such as the story of Lot sleeping with his daughters, or the rape of Dina, the daughter of Jacob. Just read Chapter 18 in the Book of Leviticus. The Bible is clear in forbidding all kinds of behaviors of sexual aggression.

The overwhelming majority of clergy are unquestionably decent, God-fearing people who want to do good and who deeply care about their congregants. These clergy risk losing their parishioners’ trust if all of us continue to turn a blind eye to this crisis in American religious life.

Did not the prophets adjure us to protect the vulnerable in our society? The National Day of Repentance is not an antidote for clergy sexual abuse, rather, this day is simply the first step in a long journey for American and worldwide religions to reclaim their credibility for the next generations of their co-religionists.