Every week there appears to be another clergy sexual abuse scandal, or the blowback as evidence of a congregation, Christian organization, a group of churches or church leaders, and entire Christian traditions either burying, minimizing, or mishandling these devastating betrayals.
This is not just a Catholic problem either. In recent months there have been incredibly painful but important stories coming out about the Independent Fundamental Baptists, Southern Baptists, and missionary organizations.
It seems to me that there are three things that we have learned as we have watched this unfold over the course of the last decade.
Institutions and individuals who have not in the past demonstrated a capacity or willingness to deal aggressively, transparently, and swiftly with this issue will not do so going forward.
If someone has come to “see the light” and to understand the ways that their complicity, or even worse, their coverup of such trauma and crime then the thing that needs to happen is that they step aside and hand the authority and leadership to people who are already doing this kind of justice-seeking, honest, and true work. Yes, people can change. Yes, people can repent and become advocates even. But they cannot continue to lead. There are too many bodies that have been violated, too many lives obliterated, and too many predators protected for them to remain in their place.
This problem is not isolated to a certain strand of Christian faith. It is not a Catholic, or Evangelical, or Fundamentalist problem. Sexual abuse by clergy and other church leaders is an epidemic everywhere.
One should never underestimate the way in which spiritual authority, coupled with the preparation techniques (what others call grooming, but such a term undercuts the ferocity and evilness of what is happening) have together to produce an incredible amount of victims in a small community over a long period of time. While many sexual offenders may have as many as 12 or 15 victims it is not uncommon for clergy sex offenders, particularly those who perpetrate over a long period of time with either the indifference or coverage of their church leadership to have somewhere closer to a hundred or more victims. All sexual abuse in heinous, but sexual abuse combined with the moral injury that occurs from the spiritual authority of a member of the clergy or church leadership is even more devastating.
Those institutions that say they are going to “come clean” or “publish the names”…they won’t…at least not all of it. It will have to be taken from them.
This has already happened in Illinois and Pennsylvania and there is no reason to believe that every diocese or denomination that provides a list will never give the full list. They would never give one name had our society not either demanded it, exposed it, or taken it from them in the first place. Nothing will change going forward.
And this is where I believe that an untried route of accountability may be useful…
Now I’m not an attorney, but I do know that despite the hundreds of millions of dollars that have already been given to victims of clergy sexual abuse that it has done little to stop abuse that is currently taking place or to significantly reform the institutions that enabled, empowered, and protected the abuser (almost always at the expense of the victim). It is clear that this kind of “punch in the pocketbook” is insufficient. They often work around these things by declaring bankruptcy or moving assets. And you can bet for sure that other Christian traditions and organizations are taking notes on the ways that the Catholic Church has managed to survive all of this economically.
But what if there was something else that could be done, a kind of radical turn that defied the hierarchies, smoke and mirrors, and complex financial lives of institutions that participated in this kind of horrific abuse?
What if their religious tax-exempt status was stripped from them?
Here’s my proposal, in three steps…
Any individual, organization, congregation, or institution that has failed to act responsibly and legally to documented cases of sexual abuse or cases that are probable enough to fall under mandatory reporting laws should have their tax exempt status as a religious organization stripped.
The IRS defines charitable organizations as those who…
[Charitable organizations] are charitable, religious, educational, scientific, literary, testing for public safety, fostering national or international amateur sports competition, and preventing cruelty to children or animals. The term charitable is used in its generally accepted legal sense and includes relief of the poor, the distressed, or the underprivileged; advancement of religion; advancement of education or science; erecting or maintaining public buildings, monuments, or works; lessening the burdens of government; lessening neighborhood tensions; eliminating prejudice and discrimination; defending human and civil rights secured by law; and combating community deterioration and juvenile delinquency.
In addition to this, those individuals who have served these organizations as leaders whether of religious positions (bishops, priests, etc.) or other capacities (directors, board members, etc.) should also be banned from serving in those same capacities in any other kind of charitable organization for twenty years.
This second component while it may seem less important, may in fact, be more consequential. What this does, at least in a number of Christian traditions, is effectively laicize or defrock those leaders. While this obviously does not make such a judgment a reality within the religious community itself, it does have a profound impact on these communities and would act as a necessary incentive for integrity and the protection of children.
For example, imagine if this were applied to Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York and the American cardinal prelate of the Catholic Church. Imagine if he were to be banned, by law, from any official leadership position in a charitable organization for the next twenty years for the systemic coverup of child sexual abuse in the diocese that he oversees. This would do two things: (1) It would force him from a position in which he is largely immune to any kind of consequences toward a position of real accountability and consequences. (2) At 69 years old, it would effectively sideline him from leadership of a Catholic or other charitable organization for the remainder of his life.
Finally, the money collected from religious and other charitable organizations that lose their tax exempt status for these reasons should be diverted into a fund that does three things: (1) Serves to cover financially the legal fees of victims as they pursue any legal recourse they might have, (2) funding for treatment for the victims of abuse and their families, and (3) the funding of programs and education that not only educates but trains charitable organizations in evidence-based practices of prevention and intervention.
History has demonstrated that only something drastic, swift, and irreversible will even begin to resolve the epidemic of sexual abuse by clergy and other religious leaders. Maybe now is the time for us to take bold and innovative approaches that give the power back to the people from whom it has been stolen in such a horrific way.