The pelican papers

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A time for repentance, not blame

Posted by Ron George on April 29, 2009

The Prodigal Son by He Qi

The Prodigal Son by He Qi

Our former pastor has been deposed for sexual misconduct committed with a member of our congregation some years ago. I’m but one of hundreds who can’t imagine their lives without his pastoral care. Now we must imagine our lives with his being removed from ordained ministry. We can not imagine the pain he and his family are in and that of his former paramour and two former congregations.

It is not a time for blame. Blame is never a solution for pain, but we seem to go there instinctively. We believe that assigning blame will take away our pain, vent our anger and generally make us feel better. Some blame our pain on the church for holding this priest accountable. Some blame our pain on the woman with whom he had a longstanding affair. Some blame our pain on the priest for having deceived us and betrayed our trust. Blame, though, is precisely the wrong way to deal with our pain, because it separates us into camps and isolates those most in need of healing from the nourishing Body of Christ.

We blame because we want to shift the burden, but the burden is ours, and if we don’t share it, it will crush the priest and his family, his paramour and her family and both congregations. It is a time for repentance, not blame, for sharing the burden and letting God in Christ Jesus heal the wounds. It is a time for forgiveness and speaking the truth in love. It is a time for grief that only divine love can heal. It’s as though there’s been a death in the family; in this case, the death of a vocation to ordained ministry. Such vocations are of, by and for the church, so we really are in this together, joined by every ligament and sinew in our souls to everyone else — and their pain. The priest’s pain is our pain, his repentance our repentance; likewise, his paramour, our sister in Christ whose burden we are called to share, whose wound Christ would see healed by forgiveness.

It is a time for listening to each other, because we have a right to express our feelings even though we don’t have a right to harm others with them. It’s a time for listening for the truth in love, the unwritten corollary of speaking the truth in love. As we listen, perhaps we can pass over to the standpoints of others and see the world as they see it, in order to understand, appreciate and really hear what they’re saying. Perhaps our own understanding will be enhanced by this way of empathic listening; and perhaps we the church will become one in the Spirit, healed of our blaming instinct and made all the more capable of sharing the burden of our sisters and brothers who are most in pain at this time.

Remember that the story isn’t finished, the story of our lives together that began some years ago. This priest’s debilitating flaw is not the meaning of his life, and it doesn’t poison the good that he has done. Neither is this recent chapter the meaning of the paramour’s life. We don’t have to rewrite our stories to account for their infidelity, which simply becomes a new part of what we recollect, a part once hidden but now known. It may cast a shadow over what we remember before God, but it does not touch the substance; moreover, we’re called to bring all of it out of the shadows and into the light. It’s the hidden things that become denial and falsehood. So, then, this is also a time for courage.

I thank God for this man’s presence in my life, and I lament this turn of events, but now more than ever we need to let God love us, all of us, which is the practice of our faith. Again and again in life we have witnessed how God brings blessing out of the worst we can do. Christianity is nothing if not a story about victory over death, and our faith means nothing if we’re unwilling to let God have this so that all may be saved from despair.

The psalmist prays: “O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger, do not punish me in your wrath. For your arrows have already pierced me, and your hand presses hard upon me … O Lord, you know all my desires, and my sighing is not hidden from you … For in you, O Lord, I have fixed my hope; you will answer me, O Lord, my God … I will confess my iniquity and be sorry for my sin … O Lord, do not forsake me; be not far from me O my God. Make haste to help me, O Lord of my salvation.”

If I were walking the path of a deposed priest with everyone touched and dispossessed by my misconduct, I would want to know the church was praying with me, sharing my burden and living in hope of resurrection.

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6 Responses to “A time for repentance, not blame”

  1. […] A time for repentance, not blame […]

  2. Ellie said

    I’m so glad Sophia talked about the power imbalance and that this behavior is by definition ABUSE.

    The medieval church rightly considered sexual misconduct perpetrated by a priest toward a parishioner to be incest. It has the same effect on the victim.

    I, too, was subject to sexual advances from a priest I trusted at a time in which I was very vulnerable. I was also subjected to sexual harrassment to the point of molestation by another priest I worked for some years later. The scars are real and deep.

    Power, folks. It’s all about power, abuse of power and the corruption that comes with power when humility and proper accountability are absent.

  3. Sophia said

    The reason this man was rightly deposed for his sexual misconduct is that, even though the woman was a legal adult and had somewhat more ability to consent than a minor, his actions were abusive of her as his congregant, with whom he had a huge imbalance of power and to whom he had a duty not to exploit and injure through sexual contact. She is his victim and not a paramour or partner in an affair and to speak of her as such fosters the common tendency to blame the women involved in such situations rather than place the blame squarely where it deserves, on the abuser. He can of course find forgiveness and restoration but this requires taking responsibility for his actions and accepting their consequences as well as making amends to her–for instance, by paying for her counseling–and to his communities which he also betrayed by his behavior.

    I was abused in a similar way as a nineteen year old college student by my adviser, a theology professor and married pastor, and suffered years of trauma and false guilt fostered by attitudes like the one displayed here before I learned the truth about it and began to heal. During those years I was further damaged by the university, which has apologized after twenty years but still fails to make restitution for fostering and mishandling the abuse by reimbursing me for therapy–and by priests and therapists with attitudes like yours who failed to see and speak the truth about the situation. *Please* educate yourself by reading Marie Fortune’s many works on clergy sexual abuse and Peter Rutter’s The Forbidden Zone on such abuse of power by therapists, clergy, and other helping professionals.

  4. Jan said

    Ron, thank you for writing this. He affected many in the church and outside to better their lives, emotionally and spiritually. He helped my husband and me and also a few of my children.

    I keep being reminded of the book we’re reading in The Wisdom Class–“The Powers That Be” by Walter Wink. Although he is talking about the spirit of institutions, his insight applies to us individual human beings, too:

    The powers are good.
    The powers are fallen.
    The powers can be redeemed.
    All this needs to be held together to see the truth.

    We are each like this and how we all need to remember this and not fall into the easy way of dualistic thinking: It’s BAD or GOOD, not both.

    We are interwoven. What hurts one hurts us all. Prayers for all.

  5. Donna said

    Oh, Friend – I am so sorry for the pain you and your congregagtion are going through. Your witness is so powerful, and it’s a wonderful thing that you are sharing God’s loving, healing Word with so many. He truly can make us new. I pray that those who have been touched by this man can find gratitude in their hearts for the good ways he has touched their lives.

    Much love to you and Mary.

  6. Jim A said

    Ron,
    The pain you are experiencing is matched only by the love and grace you call us to live into. I do not know how this will work out, but your call to move from blame to repentance is what we ALL need to hear.

    I now feel, more than ever, the need for you to do the work you started when we were meeting. The holy, catholic, and apostolic church needs to be at the forefront of healing those who have been called to ordained ministry and have fallen in this way.

    Blessings and Peace,
    Jim

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