Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Forgiveness and the Pederast: A Flaw in the Theology of Forgiveness?

Last week, the sports world was rocked by the story of allegations of sexual abuse made against a Penn State assistant football coach that resulted in the firing of that coach's superior, Head Coach Joe Paterno.

Public opinion seems to be pretty much unanimous about the inappropriateness of pederasty in this case.

The public still seems divided over the question of how one should deal with a coworker or close friend when such behavior is suspected. Some think that the Head Coach should have called the police when he first heard of the accusations, and others feel that it was sufficient that he reported the accusations up the chain of command.

When it comes to sexual acts with children, the secular world is full of talk about judgement, protection of others, and punishment.
The Church however, tends to view the individual through the lens of forgiveness, and this is where the Church's vision gets blurry.

It was the scandals involving the Roman Catholic Church that most recently raised public awareness of the question of reporting, the problem of passing the buck, and the problem of allowing the pederast to persist in their chosen "ministry."
From reading the Epistles, it seems that sexual immorality has always been a problem in the Church. Ever wonder why, in two thousand years, the problem has not been solved (except perhaps by redefining what is "immoral")?

Take the Episcopal church for example. Fr. Bede Parry was a Catholic monk and was removed from his monastery because of multiple acts of sexual misconduct. Score one point for judgement to the Catholic Church. But were those accusations passed on to the police? Fr. Parry applies for work in the Episcopal church and is accepted by the then Bishop of Nevada, +Katherine Jefferts Schori. It is widely believed that Fr. Parry's sordid past and proclivities were known since after his acceptance into the church, he was supposed to be placed away from temptation in his new position in TEc, but that word seemed to have been forgotten somewhere along the way. Fortunately, we have no further accusations against Fr. Parry from his time ministering in TEc. The case in a nutshell can be found at the Anglican Curmudgeon's blog.

Was the acceptance and placement of a potentially dangerous priest into the Episcopal fold an act of Christian forgiveness? Or was it an act of stupidity?

Another factor in the equation is a fear of rendering "judgement" among modern day Christians. We can all agree about judging the pederast as a danger, but when we fail to act appropriately upon that judgement we put others at risk. Of course, there is risk involved when speaking up and trying to act against threats to the congregation. I remember what happened to Beverly Moore back in 2005. She was placed among the excommunicated for reporting her concerns about a sexual predator in the church (my comments and links here).

Maybe there is a also broken theology of Christian judgement, but I suspect a flawed theology of forgiveness is at work in the passing along of problematic priests to unsuspecting congregations.

Here is how it works:
Priest A (a female) has a problem, let's say a dalliance with a parishioner.
Bishop A hears about it and calls Priest A in to talk about it.
Priest A confesses and pledges to never do it again.
Bishop A sends Priest A to a shrink and appoints a spiritual counsellor.
Bishop A gets reports from the shrink that Priest A might do it again.
Priest A does well for a few years and applies for a position in another diocese under Bishop B.
Bishop A reports to Bishop B the earlier issue with Priest A.
Bishop B sits down with Priest A and is convinced of Priest A's repentance.
The flawed theology of forgiveness then enters into the equation and Bishop B hires Priest A.
Priest A has a problem, another dalliance with a parishioner...
Another parish wrecked,
And the cycle repeats...

A flawed theology of forgiveness assumes that the loving response to the individual sinner is to accept them as truly repentant and restored. The flaw may stem from a belief in the inherent goodness of people, a rejection of the Doctrine of the Fall. This leads to a reluctance to pass judgement and to speak the sentence, "You're fired.," or, in the case of Fr. Parry, "We cannot hire you."  A person who recognizes their fallen state should be able to accept such a sentence, but many will take it as a sign of rejection and lose faith. Such a time is a spiritual hinge point that must be handled properly. The easy way is to hire the offender with provisions, the harder way is the "tough love" approach.

A proper theology of forgiveness must include the need to protect others from the risk of the individual falling back into sin as well as the restoration of the individual to Christ. I feel that, under a proper theology (although I am not the one to work out the details), certain individuals will not be permitted to participate in active ministry. Is that denying them their rights?

The Church's unwillingness to protect the body of Christ and society as a whole leaves the responsibility of protection to be acted upon by somebody else. Since the Church can't act, the task has been passed to the civil authority, and as a result of passing along this responsibility, the authority of the Church is weakened further.

+Katherine Jefferts Schori should have refused to accept Fr. Bede Parry into ordained ministry in the Episcopal church. That would have been consistent with the existing Canons of the Episcopal church (see the Anglican Curmudgeon's most recent analysis here). The fact that she did not follow the Canons of the church and put innocent children in peril is inexcusable. There are procedures in place for dealing with clergy who violate the Canons of the Episcopal church. Will Bishop Henderson give her a pass, or will he act?

My bet is that the flawed theology of forgiveness will be invoked, and Bishop Henderson will then probably just ask her to write a report for him on 1 Corinthians Chapter 5.


  1. I have to come back to this, because I've some lengthy thoughts that I want to hone a little more, but for now, good take.


  2. I like the concept of "flawed theology of forgiveness." Certainly, we are called to forgive those who are repentant, or those who may not be repentant. That said, there may still be consequences for one's actions. There comes a point where the reputation of The Church is imperiled and its mission is compromised into impotence. It's not a matter of being "judgmental" or improperly judging a person. Rather, it's judging a person's actions and knowing how those actions affect the Church Body as a whole.


  3. ToilNotSpin12:43 AM

    If you, as the victim of pederasty or any crime, want to forgive your predator, that is between you and your predator, and of course how literally you interpret the scriptural writings about forgiveness.

    Nowhere in the scripture does it say that you have the right to forgive or ignore criminals who hurt OTHER fact if we did that there would be no laws, no jails, and no protection for anyone. This is what happened at Penn State, and this is what seems to be happening now with our Presiding Bishop. Christ never said, "Forgive the evil that the enemies of OTHERS do to them seven times seven."