Question: Over the past two decades, far too many cases have surfaced of sexual abuse of parishioners by priests and clergymen. How should the church have responded? How should the church respond now? How does the church act to minimize such atrocities now and in the future? Can guilty clergy ever be restored to a position of trust and leadership?
As I said last week, we have all been scandalized by the voluminous reports of sexual abuse within our churches and our Christian institutions and communities. As Christians we have a sacred responsibility to do everything within our power to prevent sexual violence and abuse everywhere, including our churches and Christian communities. This includes doing thorough background checks and putting in place guidelines, procedures, and safeguards both to prevent sexual abuse from taking place and to encourage and to insist it being reported when it does occur. We must make it clear that all reports and allegations will be taken seriously and reported to the proper authorities. We must also utilize the churches’ resources to make certain that the victims are provided with the medical and counseling resources they need to begin the healing process to recover from the spiritual, psychological, and physical abuse they have experienced.
This brings us to a much more controversial question. How do we deal with priests, pastors, and church leaders who have grotesquely betrayed their sacred roles by perpetrating such crimes against those under their pastoral care? When a clergyman or other church leader inflicts sexual abuse on those under their shepherding watch care, it is not only physical and psychological abuse, but is also spiritual abuse — it is soul rape. This is true even if the sexual abuse is supposedly with “consensual” adults. How “consensual” is the relationship when the clergyman is abusing his spiritual authority role and betraying his sacred trust?
These are clergymen who have been given a sacred trust to minister the love and grace of Jesus. For them to engage in sexual abuse against, or adultery with, those who have trusted them and looked to them for spiritual counsel and pastoral care is blasphemous.
Several years ago I was with a very close, long-time friend about an hour after he discovered that his pastor had confessed to sexual affairs with at least half a dozen women in his church. He was devastated. He said, “Richard, this feels like I imagine it would feel if my wife were unfaithful to me!” And when you think about it, your relationship with your pastor or your priest is a very emotionally, intimate, transparent one — in many ways analogous to the husband-wife team relationship and the betrayal of that relationship feels like spiritual adultery.
So, when a pastor or priest has betrayed his sacred office by sexual abuse or sexual immorality with a parishioner, can there be repentance, forgiveness, and restoration to pastoral office after an appropriate period of repentance, counseling, and therapy?
My answer is forgiveness, yes — restoration, no. When a priest or a clergyman has engaged in this kind of betrayal of his office and sacred under-shepherd responsibility, I believe he has permanently disqualified himself from pastoral office. Serving as a pastor or a priest is a sacred privilege, not a right.
I believe this possibility of being permanently disqualified from ministry is exactly what the Apostle Paul is referring to when he write to the Corinthian church: “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly. I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor. 9:26-27 ESV).
Based on numerous other teachings of the Apostle, Paul is clearly not fearful of losing his eternal salvation (Rom. 8:28-39; Eph. 2:8-10; 2 Tim. 1:12). However, he is cognizant of the fact that if he did not guard himself from moral failure in his ministry, he could forfeit his right to be an apostle and a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The word translated “disqualified” (Gk. adakimos) means “disapproved” and “put on the shelf.”
Once again, the church’s ultimate responsibility must be to protect the innocent and the vulnerable. When a pastor or a priest has blasphemed the sacred trust of his pastoral office, to seduce and sexually abuse his victims, he may be forgiven, but he has permanently forfeited the sacred privilege of being a pastor.
Dr. Richard Land, BA (magna cum laude), Princeton; D.Phil. Oxford; and Th.M., New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, was president of the Southern Baptists’ Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (1988-2013) and has served since 2013 as president of Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, NC. Dr. Land has been teaching, writing, and speaking on moral and ethical issues for the last half century in addition to pastoring several churches.