Both the Protestant and Roman Catholic worlds have been rocked in the past couple of weeks by news involving abuse and sexual misconduct. Willow Creek Community Church, one of the first churches to popularize the megachurch model, became the Protestant epicenter when more allegations of sexual harassment about its founder came to light. And six Catholic dioceses are now the Roman Catholic epicenter after an 884-page grand jury report revealed a massive cover-up in which priests abused at least 1,000, and likely many more, children over a period of 70 years.
It’s safe to say that Christianity is experiencing a patriarchal crisis. Or, as Catholic writer Kaya Oakes put it: “Basically, it all boils down to this: yes, you can blame the patriarchy.”
Abuse scandals in churches are not new but the scale and details of these particular cases are harrowing.
Bill Hybels, the founder and former senior pastor of Willow Creek, allegedly instructed a church administrator to purchase and watch pornographic videos with him — while he was dressed in a bathrobe — for the intended purpose of research. Among the disturbing details in the Pennsylvania report, there are stories about one priest raping a 7-year-old girl after visiting her in the hospital, and another about a priest forcing a 9-year-old to give him oral sex and then “rinsing out the boy’s mouth with holy water to purify him.”
Elizabeth Bruenig, columnist at the Washington Post, wrote “Evil is real, and it walked the earth in Pennsylvania. It entered through our church doors.”
I agree. All of this is evil. And I also believe it’s important to name this evil and identify the particular ways in which it manifests. In both of these cases, the abuse took place in environments dominated by men with inordinate power and little accountability.
The board of elders at Willow Creek consisted of volunteers who were often approved by Bill Hybels himself. Before the New York Times report this month, the congregation was confronted by reports from the Chicago Tribune and Christianity Today that revealed Hybels had been accused by several women over the span of multiple decades. Instead of facing consequences, Hybels received a standing ovation from the congregation.
In the Pennsylvania report, it’s clear that the church hierarchy enabled and covered up the abuse. The report summarizes: “Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all. For decades. Monsignors, auxiliary bishops, bishops, archbishops, cardinals have mostly been protected; many, including some named in this report, have been promoted.” In many instances, church leaders wrote sympathetic letters to abusers while showing little to no sympathy to the victims.
It’s time for Christian leaders and members to own up to the patriarchal crisis that churches are experiencing. When the book of Genesis describes the fallen, sinful nature of humanity, it names the specific curse of oppressive male domination.
To simply chalk these instances up to sin in the abstract misses the ways in which sin has become enfleshed in hierarchical church structures led by men with little accountability. It also lets men, and male religious leaders off the hook. If we can understand this, then perhaps we can think about steps for moving forward.