Does Pastoral Abuse Invalidate Christianity?

A just released, 887-page grand jury report states that 301 Catholic priests have abused 1,000 children over a 70-year period in Pennsylvania. The report also documents the church leadership’s massive cover up of these unconscionable acts. The problem was systemic. The church hierarchy not only failed to protect the most vulnerable under their care; they hid it. The report’s findings are tragic and contemptible. Real lives were, and still are, devastated. God takes such heinous sin seriously:

“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” Matthew 18:6 (NIV)

As Jeremiah Poff, a senior at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio, writes:

They had a duty to guide and form the members of the church in the teachings of Jesus Christ and His apostles and strengthen their understanding of the truth. But they failed.

As a lifelong faithful Catholic, Tuesday was a difficult day for me. I am angry, I am horrified, I am sickened, but I still have faith. The church established by Christ Himself shall endure even this great evil.

Unfortunately, Pennsylvania is not an isolated case. Abuse has been exposed in many parishes in the U.S. and around the world. In his Facebook page, Fr. Jonathan Morris a Catholic priest serving in New York City, states that 15,0000 priests served in Pennsylvania parishes during that 70-year period. He laments:

“My heart is sick this week, having read the findings of a grand jury report in Pennsylvania, about the sexual abuse of minors in that state by clergy over a seventy-year period. It concluded that 301 priests during a period of seven decades abused over 1,000 children. The details of the abuse and the cover-up by the bishops were heart-wrenching and sickening.”

If the statistics in Pennsylvania are representative of other parishes, then 2% of clergy are guilty of decades of abuse; that’s 2% too much. Further, it’s not just a Catholic problem. During this same time period, the news has included epic failures of many high profile, non-Catholic pastors as well.

In the past year, megachurch pastor Bill Hybels, of Willow Creek, resigned because of his failures (sin). And just this week, Christianity Today reported that the entire Willow Creek elder board resigned along with several of its pastors because of their failures in ministering to Bill Hybels’ victims, as well as their failures in holding him accountable; an accountability that may have prevented it all. Such a wholesale resignation is astonishing.

Abuse is not limited to top leadership. On April 13th, The Chicago Tribune included an article about the $3.25M to settle a case of abuse by a church volunteer.


How are we to respond?

Do we walk away from Christ? Does the work of men, nullify the work of Christ?

One of the realities these reports highlight is the powerful impact each believer has on other believers. Think about the Christians we respect. Doesn’t their faith encourage us to be more faithful? It does me. But when I hear about someone in the church failing in some way, that makes me question the validity of following Christ. How we live out our faith indirectly affects other believers. If we fail, we will probably take others with us, simply because of our example. The Apostle Paul says:

“But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people.” Ephesians 5:3 (NIV)

I’ve seen Christians walk away from church for far lesser reasons than what we’re addressing here. Some reasons have been insignificant. I remember a couple who stopped attending because they didn’t like one of the songs. Another couple left to become Jehovah’s Witnesses because they didn’t like the fact that the Apostle Paul used the word striving in 1 Timothy 4:10:

That is why we labor and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe.

When my wife and I were new believers, we attended a church with a high-profile senior pastor. We learned a great deal from him. His teaching was instrumental in our understanding of Scripture. He was a role model for me. I endeavored to become just like him. But, it came to light that he had committed adultery, so he was forced to resign. A week later, we received a letter informing us that the associate pastor, who had moved onto another church by then, also resigned for the same reason. It was a dual gut-punch week. We were stunned.

We had to do a lot of soul searching. We had to determine the good we had learned from them and the bad that we had to forgive. In the final analysis, the following principle applied:

There’s nothing a person can do to nullify the work of Christ. Nothing.

The work of Christ in providing us with forgiveness of sin and eternal life stands for all eternity, whether anyone believes in it or not; or commits sin or not. Our friends and leaders may fail us, but Christ never not. What is true in Scripture, is true for all eternity, whether anyone believes it or not.

The actions detailed in the grand jury report, or the actions of pastors over us, do not change the validity of our faith in Christ, or our commitment to Him. We need to keep our eyes fixed on Christ because no one else has words of eternal life. When the multitude had walked away from Jesus because they didn’t like something He said, Jesus turned to His disciples and asked:

“You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.

Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” John 6:67–69 (NIV)

And this is what it all comes down to. If we believe in Jesus, then nothing anyone else does will cause us to lose our faith in Him. The reaction we have when our leaders sin reveals our commitment to Christ. It doesn’t give us a reason to walk away.

May the peace of God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you!

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Rob Oberto, D.Min., is the award-winning author of “Intimacy With God” available from Amazon. © 2018 Rob Oberto, All Rights Reserved.