As Western church attendance wanes among both Catholics and Protestants, the pope’s visit to Ireland this weekend urgently calls for a revival of Christian spirituality and service.
But, instead of an impassioned call for revival, the pope’s and the world’s attention will — and should — be focused on clergy sexual abuse, and the church’s willfully negligent approach to handling this crisis.
The papal visit follows a Pennsylvania grand jury report released Aug. 14, detailing a cover-up by the Catholic Church of child sexual abuse of more than 1,000 victims by more than 300 priests over a period of 70 years.
It is the latest in a long line of sexual abuse allegations spanning the globe and stretching back to at least the 1980s, and an equally pervasive effort to silence victims and protect abusers.
But, while this episode has focused attention on the Catholic Church, this is by no means just a Catholic issue. In fact, the Catholic Church isn’t unique in its prevalence of abuse, or its efforts to silence victims.
A collaborative study by the University of West Florida and University of Texas released in January found just three insurance companies covering churches and religious organizations had reported 7,095 allegations of sexual abuse by clergy, church staff or volunteers among 165,500 predominantly Protestant congregations between 1987 and 2007.
Some believe that’s just the tip of the dirty iceberg.
Boz Tchividjian, a Liberty University law professor and Billy Graham’s grandson, told the Religion Newswriters Association in 2013 the Christian mission field is a “magnet” for sexual abusers.
Tchividjian claimed evangelicals’ response to abuse has been worse than the Catholic Church, and said evangelicals had “sacrificed the souls” of young victims and that “Protestants can be very arrogant when pointing to Catholics.”
The point isn’t to deflect blame from one denomination to another. The point is that abuse is not particular to one denomination, nor is the unfortunate tendency to cover it up under the false and blasphemous premise of protecting the church.
Catholic or Protestant, this issue matters for all Christians first and foremost because Christ calls us to serve and protect the “least of these,” not to cover for their attackers. It also matters for Christians because church mishandling of abuse is turning ever more people away from the faith.
Some studies say less than 20 percent of the U.S. population now regularly attend church. According to 2016 Pew Research data, 78 percent of Americans who identify as having no religion grew up attending church. And then, they left.
More than a third of those said they lost their faith somewhere along the way. For some, rigid and irreconcilable lines drawn between faith and science drove them away. Others reported irreconcilable differences between church teachings and church actions — and nowhere is that more stark than in the endemic covering up of clergy sex abuse.
Another 20 percent said they’d come to dislike organized religion, including objections over sexual abuse scandals and cover-ups.
In essence, roughly a third of unchurched Americans aren’t outside the faith because they never found Christ. They’re outside the faith because they’ve perceived the church as acting counter to Christ. Overcoming that perception will define the future of Christianity, in America and abroad.
Pope Francis’ words in his Monday letter on this topic are good. He acknowledged the church had abandoned victims, and “no effort to beg pardon and to seek to repair the harm done will ever be sufficient.” He promised steps toward “necessary means to ensure the safety and protection of the integrity of children and of vulnerable adults, as well as implementing zero tolerance and ways of making all those who perpetrate or cover up these crimes accountable.”
Those are good words. But, the faithful have been hearing good words and seeing little action for decades.
Kathy Litton, a messenger to this year’s Southern Baptist Convention — then in the throes of its own scandal — summed it up well on the eve of the annual meeting.
“Resolutions are helpful,” she said, “but what we need even more is a willingness by people in power, particularly men in our denomination, to acknowledge that we need to rethink some of the paradigms we’ve been living with.”
The SBC’s Sexual Abuse Presidential Study Group is a step in the right direction. The pope’s words are a positive step. But Christians, regardless of denomination, are going to have to demand accountability if they want the church to survive as a true Christian body.
And church leaders, if they truly strive to follow Christ, will have to do more than offer good words. They must act, and act first and foremost to protect God’s children. They must embrace John’s words: “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.”