Sex Abuse, Protestant Style

The headline in RNS: “Willow Creek elders and lead pastor resign in wake of Hybels revelations.” Willow Creek is the oldest megachurch in the United States. Its founder, Bill Hybels, was discovered to have a long history of sexual misconduct. Furthermore, leaders of his megachurch helped cover up his “crimes.” It is interesting to compare this to the Catholic Church’s sex abuse problem.

First, unlike most abusers in the Catholic Church, Hybels did not rape anyone, much less children or youths. But it is wrong to view his sexual affairs as purely consensual. The founder and leader of a megachurch is treated almost like a demigod, and enjoys enormous power over his flock. This was a gross abuse of power, more severe than when a CEO hits on a secretary or junior executive.

The victims of Hybels’ misconduct were adult women, not young boys. While they were far from equals with Pastor Hybels, they had enormously more power than the victims of priestly sex abuse in the Catholic Church. Hybels committed adultery. But Catholic clergy commit abominable acts, far worse in the eyes of God.

In both cases, church leaders covered up the crimes. But in the Catholic Church, the leaders were far more power than the criminals, who were almost always priests. In the Catholic Church, priests are essentially buck privates, or at best non–commissioned officers. They are low men on the totem pole. Their crimes were covered up by the entire hierarchy. In the Protestant case, the “criminal” is actually the head of the church, a mini-pope. Thus he had power over the leaders who helped cover up his crimes.

Despite the fact that the crimes in the Catholic Church were far worse than those in the Protestant Church, the Protestants responded far more quickly and effectively than the Catholics. Moreover, despite the fact that the most powerful member of the Protestant church was guilty of the crime, the cover-up was much shorter and less extensive than in the Catholic Church, where the criminals were largely peons with little power.

Despite his enormous advantage over priestly abusers, Hybels got brought to justice far more quickly and effectively than priests in the Catholic Church, not to mention bishops or cardinals. Furthermore, the Protestant church’s punishment and corrective actions were far more severe and extensive than in the Catholic Church. Abusive priests were relieved of their current duties, but remain on the payroll and are given free housing. Similarly, the Catholic Church’s institutional response was perfunctory at best. They created new committees to study the problem and make recommendations. Even after decades, none of the leaders from bishop on up have ever been punished for covering up these crimes. In the Protestant Church, there was a complete change of leadership, and former leaders were actually fired. Corrective actions were far more extensive and serious than in the Catholic Church.

Despite the abhorrent performance of the Catholic Church, it continues to proclaim that it is guided by the Holy Spirit. According to them, Protestant churches not only lack such divine guidance, they are heretics and minions of the Antichrist and are bound for eternal damnation. This is part of the Church’s “infallible” encyclicals, though they rarely talk of it, and treat Protestants cordially in public. (I am not sure where the current version of the Catechism stands on this issue.)

The child abuse situation in the Catholic Church is an atrocity. For many years, the Church was given a free pass. That is no longer the case, and many countries are bringing judicial forces to bear on the problem. One or two have used legislative forces. But considering the gravity of the problem, and the organized conspiracy to cover up these crimes, the Catholic Church to date has received little more than a slap on the wrist from governments around the world.


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