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Written Word > Articles & Commentaries > April 2010 > Reading the Scandal With Biblical Eyes
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Reading the Scandal With Biblical Eyes

By Rev. Robert Barron / From Our Sunday Visitor

Once again we’re living in scandal times. The “Long Lent” that the American church endured in 2002 has now descended on the European church. A significant difference is that this time the Pope himself has come under scrutiny. Once again, the news media are in a frenzy—CNN has blanket coverage, the New York Times is running daily stories, and thousands of blogs are buzzing. In preparation for a television interview, I spent an entire day reading almost everything I could find in both the American and international press (I’m currently in Rome as a visiting professor) and found the process dismaying, depressing, and dispiriting. But what particularly struck me was this: though the scandal has been analyzed legally, institutionally, psychologically, and culturally, it has rarely been looked at biblically—even by church representatives themselves. And this is tragic, for the Bible, the Word of God, is the definitive lens through which the whole of reality is most rightly read, and church men and women above all should know this.

What does a Biblical reading of this never-ending scandal offer? First, we should not be surprised that people behave badly. The Bible clearly teaches that we human beings have been made in the image and likeness of God and that we are destined for eternal life with God; nevertheless it teaches with equal clarity that we are fallen, marked by the original sin which has compromised us in body, mind, and will. The Scriptural narratives are remarkably honest about this. They make reference to rape, theft, murder, jealous rages, palace intrigue, naked ambition, family dysfunction, political corruption, adultery, and yes, sexual abuse. More to it, many of these crimes are committed by God’s chosen instruments: Saul, David, Solomon, Jacob, Peter, Paul, and John, to name just a handful. An interviewer asked me just a few days ago, “how could this (the scandal) have happened?” and I responded, “sin.” I could have given a more textured answer, bringing in the psychological and institutional dimensions, but I believe I gave, from a Biblical perspective, the most fundamental and clarifying response. 

Second, the Church has enemies. St. Paul reminded us long ago that the Church of Jesus Christ is the new Israel, carrying on in transfigured form the mission of Israel to be a light to the nations, the enduring sign of God’s existence and love. But it is a commonplace of the Biblical narratives that Israel was not universally revered. Instead, it was enslaved by Egypt, harassed by the Philistines, overrun by the Assyrians, exiled by the Babylonians, conquered by the Greeks and the Romans. And Israel was often at war with itself: the prophets were regularly ignored, mocked, or even murdered by the people they were sent to address. The point is this: the message of God’s love is not one that is necessarily received with enthusiasm by a sinful world, just the contrary. Now only the blindest or most anti-Catholic of commentators would fail to see that, to a degree, enemies of the church are operative in the coverage surrounding this scandal. The sexual abuse of children is an international epidemic, and it is present in every aspect of society. In the United States alone, there are approximately 39,000,000 victims of child sexual abuse, and around 50% of these were abused by family members. In the decade between 1990 and 2000, nearly 300,000 children in the American public school system were abused by teachers or coaches. Social workers in Africa report that in many countries on that continent, the numbers concerning the sexual abuse of young girls runs from “very, very high to astronomically high.” And this is to say nothing of the multi-billion dollar a year pornography industry in the United States, which disproportionately abuses young people, and the even more shocking—and highly profitable—sex trade involving kids. Moreover, the John Jay study showed that, over a fifty year period, only 3-4% of Catholic priests were credibly charged with sex abuse, a figure below the national average, and in the past year, precisely six cases of clerical sex abuse, in a church of 65,000,000 were reported. Yet, to watch the television networks or read the newspapers, one would think that the sexual abuse of children is a uniquely Catholic problem, one indeed facilitated by a wicked cabal of priestly and episcopal conspirators. There are some in the mainstream culture who are unhappy with many of the positions the Catholic Church has taken on sexual issues, especially abortion, and who would like to marginalize the church’s voice or eliminate it entirely from the public conversation. Biblically minded people should not find this the least bit surprising.

A third lesson provides a balance to the second. God regularly—and sometimes harshly—chastises his people Israel in order to cleanse them. On the biblical reading, God raises up figures who name the sins of the nation and call especially the leaders of the people to repentance and reform. Under this rubric, we might consider Samuel (who challenged Saul), Nathan (who called out David), Isaiah (who railed against the temple establishment), Jeremiah (who took the leadership of Israel to task), and Jesus himself (who had a few things to say about “whitewashed sepulchers”). Not everyone who brought the clergy sex scandal to light is an enemy of the church; many should be construed as instruments of God’s vengeance, who compelled a reluctant church to come to grips with a problem that had been, for far too long, ignored, brushed under the carpet, or handled with pathetic incompetence. And for that matter, Yahweh sometimes used the enemies of Israel—Philistines, Babylonians, Romans, etc.—to work out his cleansing purposes. Might the Lord God be using the Boston Globe or the New York Times in much the same way?

I think that it’s good to study this terrible phenomenon as thoroughly as we can, but we should never forget that the most clarifying perspective is the one provided by God’s holy word. 
Posted: 4/29/2010 10:59:55 AM by Word On Fire Admin | with 13 comments
Filed under: sexabuse

"Might the Lord be using the Boston Globe or NY Times" as a cleanser? Nah, that's too much honour for such cowards. I doubt He'd allow hatred to run the show; I read other sources always -- for any news. There are true journalists elsewhere.
4/29/2010 7:09:20 PM
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Ryan D
Thank you so much for your article, Father. As always, you give us much needed perspective. Something I would like to submit for your consideration: Do you think that the mass exodus of priests and nuns from the religious life (often to marry each other) in the sixties has been overlooked as a possible contributor to sex abuse scandal that followed? I would suggest that, had those with a healthy, well-ordered sexuality had remained faithful to their vows, they could have served as a check to those with disordered sexualities. As it turned out, most of the normal people left, leaving us (and our unfortunate children) with the crazies.
4/30/2010 10:27:55 AM
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I think we need to stop talking about the fact that the Church does have enemies. I say that because it just makes it look like we are trying to defend ourselves rather than facing up to the challenge and the "facts".
Fr. Barron, I always refer to your homily about Samuel and the "cleansing" (you mention this and others in the essay).

Let us suffer silently through this in the knowledge that the Spirit will guide us through it instead of referring to percentages and other abusers etc.
4/30/2010 10:52:14 AM
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Patrick C. Ferguson Sr.
We were to dependent upon Bishops and ArchBishops to take action. Protection of the church was to transfer the offender to an unsuspecting parish and the pedophile continued the abuse. Treatment was tried and failed. It is only recently that the church has used psychology exams for seminarians to find the red flags and turn away possible future offenders. Reporting guides by state laws that offenders must be reported to police agencies. To stop further offences " Don't cover up report the crimes and remove offenders from the priesthood. These are not harsh actions and the church will become stronger because of renewed trust. " Christ was tested with a roman coin. His reply," Render onto Cesar what is Ceasar's. Render unto God what is God's. Another meaning could be, Report the abuser to the cival authorities. God will deal with the violators in his own way. Judgement is his alone. But we must obey cival law in order to have an ordered society. Doc Ferguson
5/1/2010 4:56:53 PM
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Dominick Anthony Zarcone
The following statement in Fr.Barron's article struck me as insightful: "though the scandal has been analyzed legally, institutionally, psychologically, and culturally, it has rarely been looked at biblically—even by church representatives themselves. And this is tragic, for the Bible, the Word of God, is the definitive lens through which the whole of reality is most rightly read, and church men and women above all should know this." Frankly, I have believed this same insight could be applied to all of the evils that plague our Catholic Church.
But what I would really like to offer in my comment is the opinion that the reason that Radical Islam grows and terrorists terrorize is the same reason that Fr. Barron offers why the Boston Globe and the New York Times might be used by God to cleanse the Church. God is using enemies to get our attention.
As western societies become increasingly secular and reject God and His Christ, Radical Islam could very well be the instrument Providence utilizes to turn us back to the Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, the Only Savior of the World.
For a number of years I have believed whole heartedly that our society's legalized abortions, sexual immorality, greed,corruption and violence
are being put on notice. God Bless America? How can we expect to be blessed when our society rejects the God who blesses?
What might Providence be using to cleanse us, purify us, and bring us to our senses so that we would repent and be blessed? MIGHT IT BE RADICAL ISLAM? My heart cries out "LORD HAVE MERCY, CHRIST HAVE MERCY, LORD HAVE MERCY".
5/1/2010 9:53:57 PM
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Thank you for this wonderful article...I have a cousin who was asking questions I couldn't answer and I will refer him to this article.
5/2/2010 10:21:57 AM
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It's a shame that when the original expose came out in the Hartford newspaper in 1997 about Father Maciel of the Legion of Christ, that neither Cardinal O'Connor nor Father Groeschel nor Father Neuhaus nor Mary Ann Glendon made their way purposely over to Mercy College north of the city to talks with some of the accusers (who were teaching there) -- and ascertain whether they were nuts or as it turned out absolute truth-tellers! It would have saved the Church a lot of heartache and misleading statements. Look at how the whole thing besmirches the re*****tion of John Paul the Great...
5/3/2010 11:10:57 PM
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Your comments miss the larger issue of why so many Catholics are hurt, dismayed, and turning from church leadership: the structure of our all male clergy as a contributor; so is the fauilure to contemporize our church with women priests, married priests.
Sin is present in all our lives to be sure. But parents would never, ever move around molestors and put our families at risk.
AS long as outr church leaders keep pointing to "critics" and failing to look in the mirror, I am not hopeful.
5/5/2010 5:45:20 PM
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I agree in essence: the christian must try to see God in everything and everything in (or related) to God. The "reading or interpretation" of any event implies faith according to the Sacred Scriptures. The enemies of the church can't destroy it, just purified it. The attacks on the church calls us all to purification in soul, mind and heart. However, I think something's missing in this lighting article: there is inside the catholic church a lot of priests who want to be married and remain in priesthood (may by they can't live in chastity any more) we all catholics must support our priests not only praying for them but also filling their loneliness with our friendship and integrated them in our own families.
5/11/2010 7:54:03 AM
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Great article. I'd add one thing -- beyond institutionally, psychologically, culturally, biblically, sin, and God's wrath -- and that's the existence of evil/Satan. He tempted our first parents, he tempted Jesus, and he's still at work in the world.
5/26/2010 8:59:14 PM
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Bonnie Waletzko
Why do you believe that married men priests and women priests would help solve the abuse problem? You believe these men [priests] should have wives or their own children to abuse instead? No, these weeds must be pulled out and these crimes dealt with properly.

Women priests would not help at all—how can a woman fulfill ‘Persona Christi’ which is ‘stand in for Jesus’ when Jesus was a man? What would we call them—Mother? Please, you are not thinking! Jesus Christ never chose women for this job. Even in the Old Testament God only used men for priests. God in his perfect plan has a wonderful job for women; His mother had the highest honor of all women—giving birth to the Son of God. Bearing children should be highly esteemed but our culture doesn’t hold that position—abortion is rampant.

All the Apostles were ‘Fathers’ to their children [we are the children]. God had a plan and instituted it before ascending to the Father. He founded His Church which is the pillar and foundation of Truth and is without stain or wrinkle or any such thing. The Church is the ‘hospital’; we are the ‘patients’ in need of Her healing. Sin makes us sick, our own sin as well as the sin of the clergy.

If people leave the Holy Catholic Church where are they to go? Where would you go—to a protestant ecclesial community? Why there? They have as much if not more abuse by clergy—it is not reported by the media because satan is after Jesus Christ’s Church; my opinion is that he already has all the rest… So would you start a new community and add to the 30,000+ communities already out there? Or stay home and stay away from the Sacraments? Only a fool would let satan have his way with your soul.

Pray for priests; love your priest. Pray for the Holy Catholic Church. Pray for us to all be One in Christ just as He wants us to be. Do not lose Faith, have Hope, and remain in Charity.

God be with you…

Bonnie Waletzko
6/7/2010 9:47:04 PM
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sunday school curriculum
What an intense thought that is being shown. The whole concept of looking through any situation with biblical eyes is a thought you have introduced to me. It is very important that we look at everything with that kind of a perspective. The sorrow in you writing when you say that even the church doesn’t look at the situation through biblical eyes is evident. But I don’t think this concept is something that even our priest is aware of.
2/2/2011 10:59:11 PM
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Careful, Bonnie, on your argument from silence -- the media's non-reporting of abuse in evangelical Protestant sectors is not proof that it is occurring.
3/30/2011 1:10:11 AM
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