By Melissa Lauber
There are always the faithful. But a segment of our society that distrusts "the establishment church" and the leaders who uphold it, were given new ammunition as the December issue of Penthouse magazine hit the newsstand this month.
An article in Penthouse magazine chronicles alleged sexual encounters between male priests and Brazilian men in a Long Island, N.Y. Episcopal church. The article is described in the publisher's summary of the magazine's contents as "a story so bizarre that it may well shatter any trust you have left in our religious institutions."
Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning has called the alleged activities an aberration. "If the recent allegations prove true, the clergy implicated have violated their ordination vows, desecrated holy space and betrayed a sacred trust," he said.
The Rev. Lloyd Andries, a priest named in the article, has denied the allegations. His attorney said last week legal action against the magazine is being considered. Through a spokesperson, Andries said he resigned from the priesthood and as the rector of the church named in the article "in order to spare the Episcopal Church additional trauma."
Last week (Nov. 8-9) lay and clergy members of the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island authorized an independent investigation of the activities and events reported in the article. The investigation may cost as much as $100,000.
The article has sparked a wide-ranging debate in a number of Christian reading lists and chat forums on the Internet. Many of those debating the issue both on the Internet and in other circles have jumped immediately into the mainstream church's on-going squabble over homosexuality. But some observers suggest the article raises much deeper concerns about trust, boundaries and clergy sexual misconduct.
"We can not just take homosexuality and make it a scapegoat," said retired Episcopal Bishop David Richards, the director of the Center for Sexuality and Religion.
Any articles in the press that allege clergy sexual misconduct raise fundamental questions about a sacred trust that has been broken. Indeed, in less dramatic and less publicized instances, clergy sexual misconduct is shaking the entire Christian church at its roots.
Anne A. Simpkinson, writing in the November/December issue of Common Boundary says, "sexual abuse by spiritual leaders violates trust, devastates lives, and tears communities apart. No denomination or tradition is immune."
Officials at organizations like the Interfaith Sexual Trauma Institute in Minnesota, note there are few reliable statistics to document this phenomena.
However, they can point to statistics like a national study done by the Graduate Theological Union in California that indicates that among all denominations, 25% of clergy have had some kind of sexual contact with a parishioner and 10% have had an affair; or a 1988 poll by Christianity Today that found that nearly 13% of clergy admit to having had sexual intercourse with parishioners and 76% know of other ministers who have.
But such statistics are far from scientific and no clearing house to compile an accurate portrait of the scope of clergy sexual misconduct exists.
In the past, following its instincts for self-preservation, many churches attempted to make sure that an undercurrent of secret misdeeds was never allowed to surface. But in the past few years, realization that sexual misconduct is really a misuse of power and a renewed belief in the value of truth telling in the healing process has begun to come to the fore.
"Clergy sexual abuse is like an old boot thrown into a calm pond," said Episcopal Bishop Harold Hopkins in the book "Restoring the Soul of the Church." "The ripple effect from the initial splash extends far from the spot where the boot hits the water, agitating the whole surface of the pond and more subtly but measurable eroding any shore it touches.
"Clergy sexual exploitation not only touches the shores of the Church, it also reaches and damages its very soul and center, almost as if the whole pond has become poisoned. The old boot sits on the bottom; in certain light you can see its vague outline; now and then a fisherman hooks onto it and momentarily hauls it to the surface; if the pond level drops it may reappear. It never seems to go away but lurks there waiting to be rediscovered again and again."
In a desire for truth-telling and addressing the ripples of lives torn apart by clergy sexual misconduct, many denominations have developed policies and protocols that attempt to set boundaries for appropriate sexual conduct among the clergy.
In The United Methodist Church, for instance, the denomination's Book of Discipline mandates that every annual conference (regional bodies that connect local churches) shall have a specific policy and guidelines on how they will address clergy sexual misconduct. With this mandate, every pastor and parishioner, from bishops to the newest member in the pew, knows how an accusation of sexual conduct will be addressed.
In addition to policy statements, many mainstream churches are now providing workshops and counseling programs that assist pastors in understanding their sexuality, and the stress that may cause them to act inappropriately.
New metaphors and models for ministry that recognize the human frailties of the clergy are also being developed within the spiritual community and organizations like the Interfaith Sexual Trauma Institute and The Center for Sexuality and Religion are being called upon to help. Will priests and pastors ever evolve to the point where trust is never forsaken and sexual boundaries are never crossed? It is unlikely, Richards said. Like the people they lead, they too are often flawed.
"We have heterosexual clergy, some in very high places within our churches, behaving in an very inappropriate and immoral manner. We can't just say that 'this is just a bunch of bad boys' and dismiss it at that. We can't allow that to happen," Richards added.
However, the church's willingness to focus on truth telling and its claiming the responsibility to address clergy sexuality misconduct with candor and accountability is a big first step.
It is Richard's prayer that these steps continue -- for the good of the church -- not because scandal requires it.
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