SEXUAL SCANDALS IN THE CHURCH
-Learning from two court cases in the United Church of Canada –
During the last few decades, the authority of many venerated institutions has increasingly been challenged. No longer do people accept the dictate of the government, the police, the religious or scientific institutions without question. The latest spell of revelations of sexual crimes and predatory behaviours by the clergy is one of the indications of this trend. Basically I believe it is good that despite many attempts of cover-up their false images were exposed. I have not done a sociological nor statistical study of this development. But I can depend as a primary source on my own experience of working within the church bureaucracy during this period.
In early 1990’s, the United Church of Canada found itself preoccupied in dealing with a number of sexual harassment charges against the members of clergy. I walked right into this turmoil as a member of a United Church bureaucracy called “Conference” or “Synode”. I wish to begin my remarks by describing two court cases. Then, I would like to ask ourselves three questions: Are we looking at exceptions – a few rotten apples? Or are we looking at an institution rotten to the core? And lastly what have we learned and what must we do? These two examples may sound different from what you hear and see in the media. But they are what I witnessed personally. They show the complexity of the issue.
Case number one:
A woman complained to the Ontario Human Rights Commission that she was sexually harassed by a minister during the course of pastoral counselling. She also reported of the action she took to the Presbytery. In the United Church of Canada, the Presbytery has the primary responsibility to oversee the ministry personnel. The fact that she went to a secular authority first shows her distrust of the church process. Upon receiving her report, the presbytery suspended him without pay not waiting for the outcome of the Human Rights Commission process. It launched its own investigation by a committee. Meanwhile, the respondent minister took the whole United Church to the civil court. He complained that the Presbytery did not follow the due process prescribed by the United Church Manual. The Manual is the United Church book of rules. The court ruled against the church, and ordered the church to give back his job. The church had to pay the income he lost also the cost of the court. The judge termed what the United Church did was contrary to natural justice. I was not involved personally in the Ontario court case, because it happened in another jurisdiction. But a call was extended to him by a church in my jurisdiction. Even though I did not want to see a man like him in my conference, I had no way of prevebting him to get a job in my conference by blocking the call process. It was a court order.
Case Number two:
A nude photograph of a young male minister was featured in a gay magazine centre-fold. The secretary of the Montreal Presbytery invited him to explain himself as to how this came about. The minister did not see how this could be an issue. He pointed out that there was no victim. He also insisted that the photograph was a work of art. The secretary, however, thought that such a visual image of a minister of religion would create a problem in the performance of his pastoral work. So the presbytery, on the advice of the secretary, suspended him with pay, and required him to see a counsellor. The presbytery offered to pay the cost of counselling. However, he took the whole United Church to the Quebec Superior Court claiming that he was treated unjustly without a due process. I was summoned by the court to represent the Montreal and Ottawa Conference of the United Church of Canada. The conference is a supervisory body of the Presbytery. The church argued that to be seen in such a photograph was an inappropriate behaviour for a pastor and it would affect his pastoral work negatively. However, the case came to an abrupt end, because he lied before the judge during the discovery. He was convicted of perjury, and the case was dismissed. He was put on the Discontinued Service List (DSL). In the United Church lingo, it means he was fired, and was no longer considered to be an ordained minister. Perjury is a felony, and the United Church Manual prescribes that the minister convicted of felony will automatically be put on the DSL.
It would have been an interesting precedent, had the court reached the conclusion. Defining what art is, would have been useful vis a vis pornography. Also, defining what an inappropriate behaviour for a pastor could have been extremely useful.
Now then, here we have to ask ourselves if those cases were isolated incidents by a few rotten apples, and should be dealt with as such, case by case. Or are they a tip of an iceberg of a much deeper and serious error in the self–understanding of the church?
There are many people who defend the church by taking the fist proposition. In other words, they think those and other offenders are rare exceptions not the norm. I have some sympathy with that view. For the sake of comparison, you certainly cannot condemn the whole Armed Forces form the Russell Williams monstrosity. I am proud to be a citizen of the country with professional and dedicated men and women in the armed forces. Likewise, I believe that a vast majority of men and women in the church are dedicated, caring, and selfless people who are committed to the service of God and humanity. I am proud to be a part of it. It is totally unfair to condemn the whole body because of a few sick members. Sick parts must be dealt with according to the rules of the church as well as by the laws of the land in a decisive manner. But you can not condemn the whole institution because of them.
However, I also take the view that those predatory individuals who had managed to live in the system with impunity for such a long time is a symptom of the much more profound error existed in the church itself. I believe it is a serious sickness of the Christian church. A Swiss theologian Emil Brunner kindly called it a “glorious but serious misunderstanding.” He was referring to the notion of Christendom and the church’s arrogant assumption of divine authority. It had existed within the church since a Roman Emperor Constantine made Christianity the established religion of the Empire in the fourth century. Since then, for far too long the church had assumed the divine right to determine what’s right and what’s wrong. Only God could do such a thing according to my belief, not a human being or a human institution. But the church had behaved as though it was a god therefore could set its own standard without checks and balances. Hence, its custodians, the church hierarchy and the clergy class, were considered to be above the law, and often escaped a normal scrutiny by the society and the laws of the land. The offenders were disciplined internally hidden from the eyes of the public, thus maintained a false image of an infallible institution. Now our society is going through a paradigm shift. Because of democratic, multi-cultural and secular nature of our society, the church no longer can pretend to possess the divine right to dictate the ethics of the whole nation.
It was a sign of the time when the authority of not only the church but also all established institutions is challenged. Not only was the church embroiled in court cases, so were other institutions, like educational, legal, and medical professions. I believe this is a good thing that the church had to be brought down from its pedestal and its authority and power questioned.
I used to hear those scandals as gossips and in whispers, but now I was hearing them openly and with victims demanding justice. The church was learning, and still is, even though slowly and reluctantly. The recent revelation of the abuses the First Nations children suffered in the church run residential schools brought decades of such scandalous behaviours of church personnel into the open. This is cleansing and a good thing. I say this because it is important to affirm that no human institution has the right to claim the exclusive divine authority. Historically far too many people were killed for heresy and/or immorality defined by the religious institutions. Even acts of terrorism were committed by Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus, even by Buddhists, by those who assume the divine authority to dictate doctrines and ethics. They killed innocent lives in the name of Allah or God. Not to mention the two millennia of persecution of the Jews by the church, culminating in the holocaust. They all claimed the exclusive knowledge of the divine will. This is a totally unacceptable apostasy.
Another important lesson the church has to learn is to distinguish a professional relationship from a romantic relationship. A romantic relationship is beautiful and is to be celebrated when two equal partners enter into such relationship. On the other hand, relationships based on one partner exercising power over the other in the name of love are not acceptable. No longer can a member of the clergy take advantage of his or her position over parishioners. We must all be equal. Sexual relationship between two unequal partners is exploitation of one by another, and should be proscribed. Consent between unequal partners even between adults is not a genuine consent.
This is why sex with a minor by an adult is a statutory rape. Likewise, sexual relations between professors/students, doctors/patients, lawyers/clients, and ministers/parishioners should all be prohibited. My brother-in-law, who worked for the Manitoba Auto-insurance – AUTOPAC, told me that the sexual relationship between an adjuster and a claimant will result in immediate dismissal of the adjuster. The church has to learn from other disciplines, because some of them are ahead of the church in this. Many people lament the decline of the status of the good old patriarchy figure, and blame this for the decline of public morality. But I happened to believe that in order to re-establish a new order in a secular, democratic and multi-cultural society, the old power structure which was based on erroneous assumption of authority, must be brought down. The church, or any institution, must give up a claim to the exclusive and/or divine rights. No minister, priest, imam, or ayatola is god. All believers of religion must accept that the only the Supreme Being has the right to determine the fate of the other, not human.