By Bill Mefford
When John Wesley was establishing his societies - small, accountability groups designed to grow young Christians in their newfound faith - he gave them some simple rules to live by. The first of those rules was to do no harm. Doing no harm was practiced by avoiding evil in all areas of life - both individually and collectively. In fact, what I find most intriguing by this is that Wesley established these rules for these small collectives - this was not just instruction for individuals. People were expected to avoid evil by being accountable to their new sisters and brothers in Christ. It remains a powerful model, not only for Christian growth, but also for organizing for social change.
It should be expected, no matter if someone has heard of John Wesley or not, that groups of Christians coming together, who share the same passion and the same vision, should be expected to help one another do no harm. That seems a given doesn't it? That seems a baseline of the lowest kind of expectations.Sadly, tragically, it is not.
Like most people, I was deeply saddened and shocked at the news that came out of Pennsylvania this week regarding the long history of sex abuse of children by priests that was released in a grand jury report. We would do well to remember that this report comes out fifteen years after the Boston Globe published over 600 articles about the widespread sexual abuse of children by nearly 90 Catholic priests in Boston alone. Since then, sex abuse scandals have been uncovered in dozens of cities all over the world. The Pennsylvania report shows that sexual abuse continued even after the Boston Globe uncovered both the cases of sexual abuse in Boston and the systematic institutional cover up as well. At least in Pennsylvania, it is as if nothing was learned from what was uncovered in Boston. The grand jury report documents over 300 predator priests with 1,000 victims. Most certainly, the numbers of those whose cases were not documented must number into the thousands.
No matter what the media brought to light, the Catholic church continued to cover the abuse up; paying off victims, moving clergy around to different parishes, publicly admitting nothing, and never allowing the predator priests to be arrested or charged with anything. In fact, those who covered up the abuse were often rewarded with more prestigious and lucrative assignments. Cardinal Law, who covered up the abuse in Boston, was removed from the Boston diocese and appointed by Pope John Paul II as Archpriest of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome - a considerable step up. Cardinal Wuerl was Pittsburgh's bishop from 1988 to 2006 and after he systematically covered up the abuse he received a promotion: he is now a Cardinal in DC.
If this is not sickening enough there are examples in the grand jury report of priests in the Pittsburgh area trading pornographic pictures of their victims with one another. One story highlighted a boy who was forced to stand on a bed naked while posing as Christ on the cross. A room full of priests watched and took pictures. This group took photos of their victims, adding them to a collection of child pornography which they produced, and shared with one another on church grounds. This same group of priests also gave the boys they had molested golden crosses so that other priests would know which boys to prey on if one of the priests was assigned to that diocese.
This is absolutely sickening. This if horrific. In the greatest of all understatements, this is harm; organized, coordinated, institutionally-supported harm. The leaders of the church actually worked together to spread harm. Their first rule was, "Do harm." And the most stinging indictment by the prosecutor who worked with the grand jury on this report, Josh Shapiro, said at the press conference, “Above all else, they protected their institution at all cost.”
It is far past time for mandated celibacy and patriarchal structures to end in the Catholic church. It is hard for me to believe that this would have happened if those two realities had been scrapped long ago. Yes, unfortunately child sexual abuse occurs in all denominations (and non-denominational churches), but let's be honest, there is nothing that compares with the size and scope of the tremendous harm the Catholic church has caused people.
One article called the Catholic church a "criminal syndicate" and I am not sure they are far off even though I would be the first to remind folks of the tremendous good that many Catholic entities do in local communities. But the good works cannot cover up the tremendous harm, no matter how defensive Pope Francis or the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops (USCCB) are in their statements.
More than anything, I am still struck that groups of people supposedly committed to following Jesus would allow such immense harm to exist and to actually thrive. How in God's name - literally - was this allowed to happen, when the first rule of Christians coming together should be to do no harm?
Shapiro's words keep ringing in my ears: “Above all else, they protected their institution at all cost.” Even in the statements from the Pope or the USCCB, they still cling to trying to distract peoples' attention, pointing to their good works rather than repenting and vowing to bring about radical change. Instead, they continue to protect themselves and their institution.
Institutionalism above fidelity to Christ. Institutionalism above love of other human beings. Institutionalism above common decency and a baseline human concern for the most vulnerable: a child.
There is nothing in any other religious institution that compares with the size and scope of what has been happening in the Catholic Church so I want to be careful and not try and compare tragedies. But it is not hard to think of other ways groups of Christians come together and seem bent on causing harm in their efforts to protect and preserve their institution.
The most recent example that glaringly stands out to me is the number of organizations that have given rise to networking among conservative leaders in the United Methodist Church. Though they proclaim to be focused on promoting orthodoxy in the church, the networking among conservative groups in the UMC has led to a concerted effort to systematically file charges against other United Methodists who are LGBTQ or who are allies of the LGBTQ community and who have performed same sex weddings. I have friends who are being systematically harassed through nonstop charges and church trials because they are open and public about who God has created them to be.
While not as harmful as the decades of systematic sexual abuse and cover up by the Catholic Church, it does still leave me with this sickening feeling that when we make preservation of the institution our highest goal, then we are apt to forget the first rule given to us by Wesley: do no harm.
My hope for the Catholic church is that mandated celibacy is done away with and that women are ordained as priests and leaders in the church. If nothing else is done, these two changes would bring about tremendous change and greater safety.
For United Methodists, I just pray the Spirit reminds all of us, particularly conservatives, that the welfare of people is our highest concern. To hell with the institution if we are unwilling or unable to practice the first rule to do no harm. If we can't refrain from harm then our efforts to save the institution or to save orthodoxy are for nothing. Do no harm.