For years, articles about the sexual abuse of boys by Roman Catholic priests have been appearing in newspapers. However, the problem of sexual abuse is not confined to priests alone. According to Newsweek, “long-buried episodes of sexual abuse ... in recent years have shaken other American institutions – including schools, sports teams, Boy Scouts, and most commonly, families.” 1 However, the Roman Catholic Church scandal has provoked the discussion of a number of topics of concern to Christians – the ordination of women, celibacy, homosexuality, and pedophilia. But many of these discussions are missing the important difference between forgiving and ignoring.
The public sees that something is wrong with forgiveness without repentance. They were outraged to discover that Roman Catholic Church authorities had known for years that priests were sexually abusing children. 1 The public did not accept the apology which said, “We turn to God for forgiveness. He is always ready to forgive.” 1 Known molesters were being moved from church to church even though they offended again and again. This seems more like ignoring than forgiving. Newsweek raised this question: “Is the failure of the church to confront the problem of sexual abuse … caused by a tendency to respond with prayer instead of punishment?” 1
Prayer is appropriate, but it is not a substitute for the scriptural procedure for dealing with unrepentant sinners (1 Cor. 5). It is also wrong to try to correct the sexual abuse problem, as some advocate, by instituting a married clergy or by ordaining women. 2
Celibacy is not mandated in Scripture, and the celibate priesthood was not instituted until the 12th century. 3 What Scripture says is that “it is good … not to marry” because the unmarried can serve the Lord without having to be “concerned about the affairs of this world” (1 Cor. 7:1,8,32-35 NIV). It is also an error to conclude that marriage would automatically help, as “child abuse is not confined to celibates.” 2
Scripture is plain: homosexual conduct is sinful, and referred to as “unnatural” and a “perversion” (Rom. 1:26-27). While conservative Christians accept what the Bible says, Newsweek reported that “left-leaning critics dismiss each passage in turn, pointing out that the prohibitions can be explained away.” 3However, the issue is not really homosexuality: “Homosexuals are no more likely to abuse children than heterosexuals … The issue is identifying … those (priests) that need help and need to be removed.” 4
Merriam Webster’s Dictionary (’98) defines “pedophilia” as a “sexual perversion in which children are the preferred sexual object.” This perversion “is believed to afflict 5-6% of all men (hardly any women) … but of these, most never act on these impulses.” 1 One Newsweek article noted that “experts have long ago abandoned the notion that people could he cured of pedophilia.” 5
Doctors can prescribe medication to suppress sexual appetite and attempt behavioral therapy, but such efforts can’t cure this perversion because they deal only with the symptoms. They do not deal with the root cause – the sinful nature common to mankind. We know that nothing can remove this sinful nature; only the Lord can help us control it.
The Newsweek articles pointed out that people do not realize that sex-offenders are generally “nice people” who genuinely like children, are convinced that they are not hurting them, and may actually be helping them. 2 They are often respected people, trusted not only by young people but also by adults. They often have no tendency to confess their behavior to God or anyone else. 4 Indeed, while over 1000 priests have been sued for their misbehavior, “very few have offered any show of remorse.” 2 Their sincere denials are persuasive and people often refuse to believe that priests could actually be guilty of such sin. All of this makes it very difficult to deal with the problem when it arises.
The dictionary defines repentance as “turning with sorrow from a past course of action.” For example, in the book of Jonah, the people of Nineveh were spared because “God saw … how they turned from their evil way” (Jon. 3:10). One truly repentant priest said: “I violated everything I ever believed in. I caused suffering to the very people I wanted to serve the most.” 2 Instead of asking that his past behavior be ignored, he asked to be relieved of his duties – a most appropriate but uncommon behavior.
However, it should not be thought that a truly repentant person will never offend again. Every Christian has had the experience of sinning again after repenting of a particular sin. In His mercy and grace, God has made provision for self-judgment and forgiveness (1 Cor. 11:28-31; 1 Jn. 1:9). The failure of the Roman Catholic Church was that it ignored the behavior and reassigned the sinners to new parishes where their misbehavior was not known and where they could commit the same sin again. 1
Forgiveness does not mean that we reap no consequences from what we sow. Galatians 6:7 says clearly that “a man reaps what he sows.” For example, David’s sins, involving Bathsheba and Uriah her husband, were forgiven, and he was not executed. But there were very serious consequences including the death of his son (2 Sam. 12:9-13). Nevertheless, in spite of his offense, he was allowed to continue to serve as king. Just because a person commits a sin worthy of excommunication does not mean that all service for the Lord should be terminated.
However, while forgiveness means that the offense should not be brought up again, the sin that has been revealed should not be ignored. Love, and common sense, would not return the sex abuser to a position where he would again be tempted. Determining exactly where an offender can serve requires spiritual discernment. But, one knowledgeable authority said this about the place of service of child molesters: “What’s certain is that it shouldn’t be anywhere near kids.” 5 If logic tells us that the treasurer who embezzled church funds should not serve as treasurer again, likewise, the child molester should not be working with children.
Some people think that forgiving a person means ignoring his offense. Some also think that not allowing a forgiven offender to serve in the area of his offense is a failure to show trust. However, true love would never put a repentant sinner back into temptation, but would endeavor to keep him from it.
And true love would deal with the unrepentant offender by doing what Scripture prescribes: “Expel the wicked man from among you” (1 Cor. 5:9-13). The purpose of this seemingly harsh action is to bring about repentance so the person can be restored to fellowship with the Lord and the church. The goal should be to restore the person so he can again serve in a way that is pleasing to the Lord and safe for those he serves.
1. Newsweek, Mar. 4, 2002, p. 43.
2. Newsweek, Apr. 1, 2002, p. 52.
3. Newsweek, May 6, 2002, p. 54.
4. Newsweek, May 20, 2002, p. 54.
5. Newsweek, Mar. 4, 2002, p. 51.
By Alan Crosby
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org