Eyes Wide Open

Australia is suffering at the hands of the church. Catholic leaders offer platitudes that they, “do not defend the indefensible.” What else could they say? Mounting evidence reveals leaders are apologizing for sexual abuse they knew about, but refused to act against.

A New York Times article published last week says: “…from 1980 to 2015 there were 4,444 victims of abuse and at least 1,880 suspected to be abusers.” That’s correct, but clinical. If we shift the context from a third-party observer to the point of view of the church, we can fairly say this: Since 1980, church leaders’ inaction gave 1,880 suspected abusers the opportunity to attack over 4,444 victims in Australia. The staggering majority were priests and religious brothers.

There’s a lesson in this for all churches, including Lutheran Church Canada.

New York Times: Australia’s Grim Toll in the Church’s Sex Abuse Scandal

Culpability belongs to bishops and leaders who did nothing to stop the crimes. Their moral paralysis had grotesque consequences: depression, anxiety, broken relationships, broken homes, lost faith, and some cases, suicide. Leadership may not have defended the indefensible, but they also certainly did nothing to protect the innocent. Church leaders’ inaction fostered sin for decades, probably for centuries if we’re realistic. If that doesn’t leave you breathless, you live in an iron lung.

A little post-convention therapy.

The early Christian church took ministry to the people, building hospitals, schools, universities, breweries, vineyards, and orphanages to support and ultimately build society. Fun fact: I was born in a Catholic hospital – the Gray Nun’s in Regina (the Pasqua Hospital today). It was by run by an order of actual Gray Nuns. There was a crucifix in the delivery room. The nurses were nuns and prayed for patients before tending to them. Faithful people delivered me into the world. The church – through a hospital – was literally in the room the moment I took my first breath. Over time, governments took over most social services. The church (at least in Canada) really has one job to do: spiritual leadership. The Gospel. Preach the word, administer the sacraments, and simply be an honest, bright, moral beacon that exemplifies love. Sadly, the church is a bit like a crow: easily distracted by shiny trends.

Just a few years ago the Edmonton Police Service refused to acknowledge there was gang activity in Edmonton. The city was worried about its reputation if gangs were part of the culture. Politicians lost credibility and the police lost trust because they insisted on saying the opposite of what they were seeing with their own eyes. It took a few grizzly public murders before the police admitted that, yeah, Edmonton has a slight problem with small groups of people who are trying to kill each other in a drug war. A year later the police finally said, yeah, the groups of people trying to kill each other were actually “gangs.” It was farcical.

Leaders lose credibility when they fail to see or condemn sin. Church institutions have been glacial in acknowledging problems, let alone acting against them. Stories of secrecy and cover-ups like the Australian story are a hallmark of almost every major church scandal in the world.

The only secrets in the church are the mysteries, like how Word and sacraments work. Everything else is administrative hide-and-seek. If you’re looking for the most corrosive way to govern, nothing fits the bill like the toolkit of rouges. Secrecy is for spies (and politicians), and cover-ups are for criminals (and politicians). Good leadership rejects secrecy because it foments confusion and fear. Secrecy replaces trust with paranoia and subterfuge, or misdirection. Every story has two sides, but misrepresenting the truth guarantees misunderstanding. Covering up provides temporary relief, but secrecy is a double-edged sword: it inevitably betrays the thing it protects.

The abuses within the church – including our own (because we’re being honest and realistic) – happen for the simplest, banal, and even hopeful reasons: we want to do good, we want to get along, and we want to look good doing it. Scandals happen when leaders choose to protect and preserve the institution rather than its message and people. It’s important as Christians to understand that unhealthy attitudes exist in the church, and to be vigilant and guard against institutional protectionism. When Lutheran Church Canada faced its greatest crisis in its 30 year history, leaders clammed up and opted for a legal solution: they elected to distance themselves from depositors and to insert lawyers and a federal court between themselves and their people. That’s the truth. It’s a problem the church can’t restructure its way out of (but it’s going to try anyway).

Count 50 year olds in your congregation. You won’t see many of us. My generation isn’t a big part of LCC. We’re called “Generation X” and we ask questions. We were raised in the 60’s – the protest movement was our paddle pool. We question everything, which is often mistaken for defiance. My non-church GenX friends believe churches pretend not to know about internal problems and sin because they believe it tarnishes the brand. End of story. That’s it. No major revelation. They believe churches hide the truth of their problems because it’s an image and marketing problem. No biggie. Easily ignored. No need to pay any attention to the church, it’s just a brand and marketing problem. Credibility, trust, and respect diminish as evidence narrows the gap between the church and the world. The real problem: people don’t believe there’s any difference between life with or without the church because they don’t see it.

The church used to be the moral authority in the western world. At best the church’s morality and values parallel secular morality. Public outrage, the law, courts, lawyers and judges now set the standard for the church to follow. The truth is the church is following the world. We’ve seen it in worship, in preaching, and in sexual and financial scandals.When a church leader says, “I can’t talk about that because it’s in the courts,” what they really say is “The courts will determine whether I spoke or acted lawfully or not.” The church’s morality is being determined by the courts. Sexual abuse in Australia, financial scandal in Canada. Thousands of Christians in Australia and Canada suffered at the hands of the church because leadership didn’t act, or took action to preserve itself. The church’s transgressions are grave. Leaders caused shame, guilt, fear, uncertainty, and anguish in the name of God.

The world is watching what our churches teach, believe, confess, and how we act.  The decline in church membership is probably because people don’t see a difference between the church and the world. For now the church co-exists with the world, but Christianity is on notice. Faith is tolerated, for now. A few more major scandals and religion may well be regulated or criminalized within just a few generations. I’m not kidding.

The sexual abuse in the Australian Catholic church is being exposed at the same time CEF collapsed. While we can’t say for sure why CEF collapsed, we know one thing for sure: It’s not because everyone in the pews followed in the wrong direction.

Secrets, cover-ups, and inaction are the enemies of faith. As a church we must reject and be vigilant against them. It’s just smarter and safer to keep your eyes open when you’re walking along a cliff, y’know?






Bunnies in Cups
That was heavy. Here’s a picture of bunnies in cups to lighten things up.

Andreas Schwabe is editor and publisher of SolaGratia.ca, and an Edmonton-based multimedia & communication strategist and producer. His focus for SolaGratia is on administration, governance, and issues of faith. For clients, he writes or produces just about anything.

5 thoughts on “Eyes Wide Open

  1. Gordon Schultz

    The way an institution reacts or responds to a scandal or crisis exposes the real values which actually motivate the institution and the underlying philosophy under which its leadership operates despite whatever lip service they may pay to other values. Values such as an over inflated sense of its own importance and the necessity to ensure its own existence and survival. Or the necessity to cover over or explain away and excuse its imperfections in order to protect its image and reputation. (It was structure. It was circumstances. We erred for the sake of the gospel.) Or the necessity of the (superficial) appearance of unity (and the ignoring of possibly divisive – but made to seem irrelevant – differences) among its members so that they appear to each other, and to the world, as one big happy family. All because they try to convince themselves and others that its necessary “for the sake of the gospel,” or whatever the values are that they want to pay lip service to. “Damage control” for the sake of the gospel. Who are they trying to convince?

    • ANO

      That whole line of “keeping up the appearances and the truth be damned” forgets that it is the power of the Word that brings people to faith, and the Lord that sustains His church. Scriptures records people that have tried playing the “coverup” game – and what happens when they are eventually found out.

  2. ShannonTressel

    Thank you so much for your always informative (although often, also disturbing) posts. I also appreciate the bunnies in cups 🙂 When I was a child one of my favorite stories was the Emperor’s New Clothes, the kid that spoke up was my hero 🙂 Sometimes the truth is tough to hear, tough to swallow and especially tough to take action on. The thing is, as we well know, it is also the only thing that sets us free.

  3. Rev Robert Clifford

    Thank you for caring to write; your voice needs to be heard. Is there any possibility of having this published in a “letter to the editor” or an “opinion column” in the Canadian Lutheran magazine? Could you submit it & ask to have it printed?

    I have printed out copies & read aloud some of these SolaGratia articles at congregation meetings & directed members to this website for further salutary reading.

    (The concluding picture & caption had me smiling right out loud.)

    • ANO

      I’d be amazed if the CDN Lutheran actually printed an article this critical of LCC leadership. Kudos to you for keeping your congregation informed on the tough issues LCC faces and getting them thinking about them.

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