"The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don't do anything about it." That was Albert Einstein, and while he was not known as a religious man, his mini-homily could apply to the sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church.
Catholic bishops, meeting in Dallas last week, adopted a new policy designed to ban any priest who has ever sexually assaulted a minor from ministerial duties. The policy stops short of defrocking such priests and the bishops disciplined none of their own for their Watergate-style cover-up of past transgressions. The new policy promises to alert civil authorities to all future allegations of sexual abuse by clergy against minors.
That is a good step, but the fact is many bishops who occupied a unique place of authority and trust did nothing and, thus, allowed evil to spread like untreated cancer throughout the church body. They also caused the name of the One they profess to follow to be dragged through the mud and held up to ridicule by nonbelievers.
The problem of sexual sin by clergy is not exclusively Catholic. In the March 30 issue of World magazine, an evangelical Protestant publication, writer Lynn Vincent describes the "lurking sex scandal" within Protestant churches. Vincent cites Joe E. Trull, co-author of "Ministerial Ethics" (1993), who helped write the clergy sexual abuse policy for the Baptist General Convention of Texas:
"From his study of literature on clergy sexual abuse, (Trull) concludes that 'from 30 to 35 percent of ministers of all denominations admit to having sexual relationships from inappropriate touching and kissing to sexual intercourse outside of marriage.' Mr. Trull estimates that 'at least half' of that contact occurs in pastoral counseling."
While there is no current list of offending pastors, Vincent quotes from a 1984 survey by Fuller Seminary of 1,200 ministers. It found one in five theologically conservative pastors admitting to some sexual contact outside of marriage with a church member, with over two-fifths of theologically "moderate" and half of theologically "liberal" pastors confessing to similar behavior. A Web site (www.advocateweb.com) includes stories of sexual abuse by Protestant ministers.
The problem is more than denominational. It is cultural and personal. Clergy are people, subject to the same temptations as the laity. But when the doctrine of God's grace has been cheapened by easy forgiveness and too-rapid restoration (attention church shoppers: those with 10 or fewer sins, please use the express checkout line), it is bound to affect even Christian leadership.
When lay people see TV evangelists committing adultery and quickly returning to television, when they see prominent Christian singers and authors having affairs, divorcing spouses and marrying someone else (and their Christian music companies and book publishers continuing to promote their wares, even using their sin as a marketing tool), why should anyone think that God is offended by such behavior?
The message is simple; that the bottom line is more important than the offense to a holy God.
The media and various authority figures constantly grant "permission" to sin by their words and deeds, thus encouraging more people to sin. There are now activists for virtually anything our lower nature urges us to do and, according to them, the real "sinners" are those who say what they advocate is wrong.
Having what one wants without consequences is a notion as old as the Garden of Eden. Satan told our first parents they could ignore God, eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and they would not die (see Genesis 2:16 and 3:4). He appealed to their pride to "be like God," though they already were, having been made in His image. That is why pride goes before every other sin. Culture and some theologians assert we can do what we want and who is anyone to say otherwise? If people say otherwise, they are called bigots and intolerant fundamentalists.
The offending Catholic priests and the bishops who covered up for them believed it was more important to preserve the institution than insure its integrity and purity. In fact, they are guilty of trespassing on God's property and their self-conceit is an offense, not only to Him, but also to every Catholic and non-Catholic.
Cal Thomas is a columnist for Tribune Media Services.