When the clergy takes sexual advantage
By MARC HOWARD WILSON
Let us acknowledge that the vast majority of men and women whominister to congregations are honorable, morally centered people.Nevertheless, let us also acknowledge — amid the congressional Foleyscandal and his allegation of past abuse — that a disproportionatenumber of morally unwhole people seem to find their way into ministry.As recent traumatizing events shake those of us in the national Jewishcommunity, we realize that the phenomenon is certainly not exclusive tothe Catholic priesthood, despite the intensity of recent media focus.It is endemic.
Some clergy deserve the opportunity to heal their unwholeness.Others are simply not fit for ministry. And, others should sit, if notrot, in jail.
I would still like to believe that no one enters ministry withmalevolent intent. Why, then, does the clergy attract so many morallyunstable people? A good portion of the answer comes from uncurbednarcissism coming from conflicts in one’s youth. The very drive thatattracts morally whole people to dedicate their lives to teaching ofGod is just one fatal millimeter away from an agenda to dominating,manipulating and seeking morally corrupt ways to slake an insatiablethirst for approval.
Moral impropriety is only one way for narcissism to misdirect one’sministry. Can we count the number of nauseatingly egomaniacal clergywho occupy some of our most prestigious pulpits with impunity, simplybecause they have not been caught with their pants down or their handin the till?
Enough armchair psychology. What kinds of early interventions canseminaries, denominations or mentors make to heal a seminarian’sdisposition to unwholeness or to dissuade a badly conflicted seminarianfrom a life in ministry? My own years among seminarians and clergy, andmy own weaknesses and self-doubts, teach me that one need not be agenie to recognize the manifestations of a seminarian’s psyche that areunsuited for ministry or its allurements. Counselors, teachers,mentors, even classmates, can usually sense them from a mile away. But,they routinely blind themselves to the truth. Worse, they fail to buildinto the seminary’s rubric any opportunities for intervention, orconfuse a student’s intellectual capacities for the qualities that makea morally whole clergyperson.
Nearly 40 years ago, my classmates and I, and certainly ouryeshiva’s instructors, openly discussed the intellectual genius andpsychotic disposition (“nutcase”) of a fellow seminarian. Yet he wasduly ordained, recruited to work with vulnerable youth, rising to thetop of the pop chart. And now, his name disgraces national headlinesfor countless allegations of abuse, and all we can say is that “we knewit all along.” Shame on him, but immeasurably more shame on us.
For him, the die was obviously already cast. For so many otherseminarians and neophyte clergy, timely intervention, mentoring and anatmosphere that encourages self-scrutiny can temper unbridlednarcissism and redirect it to a ministry of compassion and moralrectitude. And sometimes, a student must be declared unfit to occupythe pulpit.
What of laypeople “driving a minister crazy”? Let’s acknowledge thatdemands of ministry do not “make” a minister unwhole. Perhaps laypeoplecan take someone predisposed to moral weakness over the edge, in thesame way that a trauma can take a person predisposed to depression intoa sustained clinical depression. However, laypeople must be vigilantabout not foisting impossible expectations on their minister, guardingtheir tongues from undeserved criticism. Let the instead work harder onwarmly validating — if not celebrating — their minister’s basichumanity. Even the best of us is vulnerable to ego bruises and calloustreatment. But let the demands of ministry never be an acceptableexcuse for moral failure.
A minister who morally betrays his flock is contemptible. Thatshould not cloud their sense that they have beheld a second tragedy:the tragedy of a life that held such promise gone wrong. Afterpunishment has been meted out, the time has come not forself-righteousness and schadenfreude, but for understanding andcircumspection.
Mr. Wilson is a rabbi in Greenville. Write to him at MarcWilson1216@aol.com.
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