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.
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?
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.