This week I've been reading, rather reluctantly I must admit, the news of sex abuse scandals at Willow Creek and in the Catholic dioceses of Pennsylvania. It’s harrowing, stomach churning stuff, but I am grateful for the work of journalists at the New York Times and the Washington Post, and for the Pennsylvania grand jury, for bringing this mess into the harsh light of day. Truly, they are doing the Lord’s work.
I’ve also been following the discussion among my clergy peers, both in person and online. It’s an understatement to say that this all hits uncomfortably close to home, in at least a couple ways. Setting aside those dioceses in Pennsylvania or that megachurch in Illinois, all of us are sadly familiar with stories of similar transgressions in our own communities.
I’ve been part of profitable discussions about developing robust “safe church” policies. I’ve overheard rumination about what sort of structural influences may be at play in these horror shows: is a church built around the charismatic personality of a lead pastor especially susceptible to abuse? Does an assumption of “Father knows best” – long a part of Catholic culture as I understand it – ward off an appropriate suspicion about Father’s activities? I’ve read about various ecclesiastical models and speculated on how they might hinder the possibility for abuse to take place. I’ve discussed various best practices of holding one another accountable, via peer groups, mentorships, and counselling, and so on.
This too is the Lord’s work. Our lives are well regulated by good policies, good practices, good procedures, and in the wake of these catastrophes, it’s beneficial to think deeply about these things, to tweak and adjust where necessary, and to be ready to reform when systems fail to be the safeguard they’re designed to be. I’m grateful for these discussions, and for all the insight they’ve brought my way.
But I do have this nagging thought that won’t leave me. I wonder if, lurking behind all that good policy and procedural talk, is a desire to manage this carnage, to keep it under our control, to make it into something we can understand, or even to externalize it. See! If we just put such and such a policy in place, we’ll have a better handle on this sort of stuff! See! Here’s the real reason why things went wrong at that church.
If that feeling does lurk there, I totally understand. But I’m not sure how beneficial it is, because ultimately, these calamities seem to resist understanding. I turn them over and over in my head, and just when I think a clear picture is about emerge, the whole thought process goes spinning off the spindle, like a warped reel on an old movie projector. They just don’t make sense.
I suppose that’s because the thing these awful stories all have in common is that they seem to be made possible by our prodigious capacity for self-deception, a capacity which feeds, parasitically, on the very faculty we prize so highly: our rational, deliberative mind.
When I read about the cover ups and the self-justification and the excuses, it all just seems so delusional. And an evil that depends on a delusion will always resist being fully understood. It will also, if it so desires, find a way to evade the structural safe guards we put in its way.
It’s hard not to despair. I don’t know exactly what the road forward looks like, but I think we’d profit to work this angle – to really reckon with the lies we tell ourselves, with the darkest corners of our hearts – at least as much as we discuss managerial wisdom. I do know that we have resources in our venerable tradition that confront this capacity for self-deception and delusion head on. The desert monastic tradition, which I’ve discussed in these pages before, found its very reason for being in that confrontation. Might it be time, amidst all the discussions of good policy and procedure, to tap into this part of our inheritance? Dare I dream of a leadership summit, a missional conference, where that kind of exploration is first and foremost on the agenda?
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