“Of all bad men,” C.S. Lewis once said, “religious bad men are the worst.”
Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, 88, was removed from ministry in June by a church review board of the Roman Catholic Church after being credibly accused of abusing a teenager early in his career, while still a priest. According to the Washington Post, “The youth was helping prepare for a Christmas service when McCarrick allegedly put his hands in the boy’s pants.”
But McCarrick was just getting started. A man from Virginia who is now 60 accused the archbishop of Washington, who has been a key spokesman defending the church amid its massive sex abuse scandals, of abusing him for 20 years, starting at a swim party when he was 11. Often McCarrick used alcohol to gain control of his victim. McCarrick’s “special boy,” named James, kept quiet for years about what was going on with “Uncle Ted,” out of fear.
What kind of fear?
“That no one is going to believe me,” James told Rod Dreher. “That I was doing something wrong. He would always tell me that I was his special boy, that God gave me to him, so we could worship together and be happy together. He told me he had the power to get God to forgive me all my sins. That my father didn’t have that power. That’s the aura.”
Despicable. I wish someone in James’s life had told him the truth—that God’s forgiveness comes only through the “one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5), who shed His innocent blood to make sinners right with God through faith (Rom. 3:23-26).
That’s hardly the end of Uncle Ted’s sordid career of abuse and manipulation, however. McCarrick also used his power to indulge his perversions with young men studying for the priesthood. According to the Post, “Robert Ciolek, a former priest, said McCarrick would invite him and other seminarians to a beach house, where there was always one bed too few, so one man would have to sleep with the bishop.”
Ugh. There are other allegations against Uncle Ted, and more likely will surface. But perhaps the worst part of this latest sex scandal is how his superiors knowingly covered up his crimes for decades. More and more serious Catholics are calling for the laity to be heard and for real reform to commence, before it is too late.
As the editor of Catholic World News, Philip Lawler, states, “The failure of Church leaders to take action against McCarrick when they first heard of his offenses, perhaps twenty years ago, is evidence of the need for reform within the hierarchy. The fact that many prelates took action for McCarrick—making him their spokesman, enlisting his help, following his lead—speaks to the urgency of the crisis.”
On July 28, Uncle Ted resigned from the College of Cardinals. Pope Francis, meanwhile, has ordered McCarrick to remain in prayer and seclusion while he awaits a church trial. Too bad a criminal trial is not an option.
Of course, the church centered in Rome is far from the only ecclesiastical body wracked with the ugly disease of sexual abuse and organizational perfidy. The Chicago Tribune reported that Willow Creek, one of evangelicalism’s flagship churches in America, looked the other way as founder and lead pastor Bill Hybels faced “allegations of misconduct with women — including church employees — that ran afoul of church teachings and spanned decades.”
Church leaders even cast doubt on the credibility of some who came forward. Following the incredibly bad press that this mistreatment of the whistleblowers engendered, Willow Creek leaders belatedly apologized for their conduct. Continuing to protest his innocence, Hybels retired in April, but the damage was done.
Earlier this year, the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, was rocked with the news that Frank Page, president of its Executive Committee, had resigned over what he called “a morally inappropriate relationship in the recent past.”
Even more damning, Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a leader of the SBC’s conservative movement, had counseled a female student who said she had been raped to remain silent. Patterson, who also had said a series of sexist remarks over the years, was dismissed.
Then there is Andy Savage, teaching pastor at Highpoint Church in Memphis, Tenn. In March, Savage confessed to his church that, while a youth pastor, he had initiated sexual contact with a teenaged girl in the youth group. The congregation gave Savage a standing ovation, but two weeks later, following a wave of outrage nationally, he resigned his position.
Clearly, something is wrong. Whether Protestant or Catholic, egalitarian or complementarian, conservative or liberal, our churches and Christian groups have a problem with sex. Priestly celibacy cannot tame it. Nor can Protestant freedom. We are sex-obsessed, and not in a good way. We want it when we want it, with whoever we please (with or without their consent), however we desire, and we will use our positions of spiritual authority to get it. And there will always be someone who will enable us.
Sexual relations, in the minds of clergy as well as laity, are no longer a wonderful gift reserved exclusively for a married man and woman, with children as the natural result. Sex is instead a gateway to earthly pleasure, even to transcendent meaning, in an increasingly pagan culture that pays little more than lip service to God, who nonetheless promises that He is the sum of all Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, and that at His right hand are eternal pleasures (Psa. 16:11). We have made sex our God—and that includes our clergy. Is it any wonder that the church has been so powerless in the grim face of the sexual revolution?
So we must, first of all, repent of our idolatry and, in the words of Todd Wilson, “rediscover the historic Christian vision of human sexuality. Now, more than at any other time since the first centuries of the church, we need a countercultural Christian sexual ethic and, at an even deeper level, a distinctively Christian view of human sexuality. We need a fresh encounter with what has been called the ‘jarring gospel of Christian sexuality’ that transformed the pagan world.”
And we must take up our crosses and follow Him. Pastors and priests must be first in line. What does this look like?
Well, Tom Schreiner, professor of New Testament at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, says this: “Pastors who are discovered to be in long term sin and who have lived deceitfully for many years will show their repentance by not returning to the pulpit but by living faithfully and humbly as church members and by submitting to the authority of their local church.”
Paul McHugh, the eminent psychiatrist from Johns Hopkins and a Catholic, was a member of the Roman church’s lay-led National Review Board that examined the causes of the crisis back in 2002. The corrupt McCarrick and other leaders kept the NRB in the dark, he said, blaming much of the abuse on “the mental immaturity of seminarians,” instead of cultural and institutional rot.
Today McHugh says the church must not overlook the moral dimensions of the scandal: “The Catholic Church in relation to this problem, whatever the causes, was not dealing with this in a Catholic way.” He rightly says the church must do penance—yearly.
Repentance, of course, has always been God’s way of turning bad men into good—even religious bad men. And, whatever church we attend, we must repent not only because it is right and because our Lord requires it, but because our churches will die without it. Dreher believes that many already have and that we just haven’t realized it yet.
“It takes eight minutes for light to reach earth from the sun,” a Catholic friend told him. “If the sun stopped exploding, if it went dark, it would be eight minutes before we knew it. I feel like we’re living in that eight minutes now.”
Stan Guthrie, a licensed minister, is an editor at large for the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. Stan is the author of A Concise Guide to Bible Prophecy: 60 Predictions Everyone Should Know.