The power of religion, despite the decline in the number of practitioners, must be strong if there are still people today who believe and practice in spite of the scandals within major religions. Especially sexual scandals.

In the past week, Pope Francis has convened a Vatican summit to address the issue of priests and bishops sexually assaulting children and of others covering up the crimes.

We have known for years that priests and bishops were doing this and little has been done to stop it or to punish the criminals.  The Boston Globe won a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for uncovering the abuse of children by scores of Catholic priests in the Archdiocese of Boston.  In 1989, the Catholic Church in Newfoundland was called out for permitting widespread abuse of children in an orphanage.  The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops called on the larger church to take steps to curb child abuse.  Nothing happened.

As archbishop of Buenos Aires, Pope Francis was accused of wini-wink-nudge-nudge when priests were accused of sexually abusing children.  His first few years as pope weren’t much better. He even pushed through canonization of John Paul II, under whom priestly crimes in Boston and Washington were committed and ignored or denied.  But Francis may have seen the light.  On Feb. 16, he booted from the priesthood Theodore McCarrick, who had committed sexual abuse and covered up the abuse by others before and during his tenure as Archbishop of Washington, D.C.

On Feb. 12, the Houston Chronicle published an investigation that showed the Catholics aren’t alone. The Chronicle documented more than 380 cases of ministers and volunteers in the Southern Baptist Convention sexually misbehaving, including child abuse.

The victims were often ostracized by their churches or were told to forgive their abusers or told to get abortions.  This all sounded too familiar.  On Thursday, an African woman told Pope Francis’s summit on child abuse that she had been repeatedly raped by her pastor, who three times ordered her to have an abortion after he had impregnated her.


The Catholic and Southern Baptist churches are among the happiest at President Donald Trump’s nominations of Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court because — you guessed it — both oppose abortion in all cases. Can you say hypocrisy?

Many early commentators attributed the abuse of children to the celibacy required of Catholic priests.  Then along came the Southern Baptists. (A large majority of Baptist churches around here are not Southern Baptist but American Baptist.)

Southern Baptists ministers may marry. So, clearly, the problem of men of the cloth sexually abusing children and others doesn’t trace solely to celibacy. There has to be another source or sources to explain the depth and breadth of the abuse.

Let me suggest that there are two sources of the sexual abuse by men of the cloth

The first part is sex itself. When an institution focuses so sharply on sexual behavior, should it surprise us that those who rebel against or within the institution would choose sexual behavior for their rebellion? Or even fail to see their behavior as troubling? If you saw the movie “Spotlight,” you were likely staggered when a serial-abusing priest told Sacha Pfeiffer of the Globe that his abuse was not a sin because he didn’t enjoy it.

At a seminar of the Maine Conference of the United Church of Christ (Congregational) in 2011, Catholic theologian John Dominic Crossan told us that we Christians for centuries have obsessed over sexual behavior.  Better, he said, we should obsess over violence. Who is doing what and to whom is a far deeper theological and philosophical question, Crossan told our meeting in Falmouth, than who is sleeping with whom.


Yes, the Bible lays out prescriptions and proscriptions about sexual behavior. But the Bible also implores us: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the prophets.” That’s Matthew 7:12, a dictate to us from the Prince of Peace, speaking in the Sermon on the Mount.

The second source I see is that so many churches, including Catholics and Southern Baptists, allow only men to be pastors. The view of God passed down through centuries has been passed almost exclusively by male clerics. It should not surprise us that men interpreting God to the rest of us see God in their own image. As a male.

Serene Jones, president of the Union Theological Seminary in New York City, told Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, “Both the Catholic and Southern Baptist churches have very masculine understandings of God and have a structure where men are considered the closest representatives of God.”

Jonathan Walton, a professor of Christian morals at Harvard, said, “Prohibiting women from the highest ranks of formal leadership fosters a fundamentally toxic masculinity.”

It wasn’t always thus. As Kristof wrote, “The paradox is that Jesus and the early Christian church seem to have been very open to women. The only person in the New Testament who wins an argument with Jesus is an unnamed woman who begs him to heal her daughter (Mark 7:24-30 and Matthew 15:21-28).”

Further, Kristof cites a second-century Gnostic text suggesting that Jesus trusted Mary Magdalene to instruct his disciples in religion. But male hierarchies took over early in Christianity, and women were mostly barred from religious leadership.

Even though other religions, including my own, have struggled with issues of sexual abuse of children, it seems to happen a lot less among those denominations whose ministers are both women and men.

Bob Neal notes that corporations with women in prominent leadership positions are less likely to be indicted, charged or convicted of crimes. And they make more money.

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