Catholic and Evangelical Sex Scandals Are Structurally Different

What do pastors have in common with the Catholic bishops?

What do pastors have in common with the Catholic bishops other than claiming to be apostles?

Have you heard anything about the abrupt break between Bob Jones University and sex abuse investigators they hired from GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment)?

Or, have you heard anything about the non-investigation of Bill Gothard—an evangelical home-schooling guru with allegations hanging over his head that would make Woody Allen blush?

Probably not.

After a single RNS report a week ago about the Bob Jones debacle the story finally “broke” yesterday in a handful major media outlets. On the other hand, Gothard continues to fly under the radar.

Now you might think that Catholic sex scandals are structurally different from Evangelical scandals because they involve more people than Protestant sex scandals. This is both true and false.

Catholic scandals involve more people because whenever any one person commits a crime a hierarchy gets involved, potentially all the way up to the pope.

Protestant scandals usually involve one pastor who is the ultimate authority for a congregation. Perhaps not too paradoxically, their victims might be much more numerous.

Let me explain.

I recently gave a talk about the Catholic imagination. The work I’ve done on the topic grows out of writing my dissertation on the poetry of a Polish Nobelist, the poet Czeslaw Milosz. Part of my argument circles around showing how difficult it is for a mostly post-Protestant audience to wrap their minds around the work of a poet whose work grows out of his Catholic intellectual scaffolding.  (The other part of my argument is concerned with showing how the study of literature is a royal road into understanding theology, but I’ll save that for another day.)

At the most basic level the Catholic imagination is analogical, meaning, it looks for similarities between humanity and God by stressing the immanence of God in creation, and it tends to trust social structures as good if flawed. It’s all or nothing.

On the other hand, the Protestant imagination stresses the difference between God and his creation by putting accent on the transcendence of God. The unmediated relationship between the believer and his or her God results in a tendency to suspect social structures of being destructive of the individual. It’s nothing or all.

If you want to delve deeper into the implications of these different ways of inhabiting the world, and how I account for the exceptions to the rule, then take a look at my longer discussions of both the Catholic imagination and the Protestant imagination.

All of this has bearing on why the public sex scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church have totally drowned out the evangelical world’s greater problems with sex abuse. What I’d like to suggest is that this disproportion in coverage makes perfect sense.

When I say the evangelical problem is greater I’m talking about an even earlier RNS report about Billy Graham’s grandson, Boz Tchividjian. He reasons that the Protestant abuse problem is much worse, because of structural reasons. Here is what Mr. Tchividjian, a Liberty University law professor, executive director of Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE) said long before Bob Jones University fired his investigative company:

Priests and pedophiles, but Jenkins asks elsewhere, "What about pastors?"

Pedophiles and priests, but Jenkins asks elsewhere, “What about pastors?

“While comparing evangelicals to Catholics on abuse response, ‘I think we are worse,’ he said at the Religion Newswriters Association conference, saying too many evangelicals had ‘sacrificed the souls’ of young victims…

‘The Protestant culture is defined by independence,’ Tchividjian said. Evangelicals often frown upon transparency and accountability, he said, as many Protestants rely on Scripture more than religious leaders, compared to Catholics.

Abusers discourage whistle-blowing by condemning gossip to try to keep people from reporting abuse, he said. Victims are also told to protect the reputation of Jesus.”

In other words, the “natural” Catholic trust of institutions and hierarchies, as much as they might complain about them, means that there is an accountability structure that ensures the buck will stop somewhere.

The Catholics have been working on their crisis in earnest since at least Benedict’s pontificate without much fanfare, because it’s much more profitable (both for trads and liberals) to play up the scandals to score intra-ecclesial points by other means.

Here are two stories that should set you straight on Benedict’s unfairly maligned record: “Jesuit expert calls Benedict ‘great reformer’ on sex abuse” and “Retraction: Vatican now confirms almost 400 priests defrocked for sex abuse.”

Our evangelical friends don’t have such a wide ranging accountability net to catch their problems. This is one reason why the Catholic Church, in ways different than Islam, does not need the fissiparousness of a Reformation.

It’s also the reason why—there’s no reason to bemoan it—Catholic scandals will always remain more visible than evangelical scandals. But let’s not forget the secular world’s record is infinitely worse than the religious world’s, because there’s almost no place for the buck to stop in institutions such as the UN.

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15 comments on “Catholic and Evangelical Sex Scandals Are Structurally Different
  1. “On the other hand, the Protestant imagination stresses the difference between God and his creation by putting accent on the transcendence of God. The unmediated relationship between the believer and his or her God results in a tendency to suspect social structures of being destructive of the individual. It’s nothing or all.”

    ## This Catholic prefers that approach – the other one has a tendency to make Divine things material. For instance, the Protestant approach does more justice to the “distance” Jesus puts Himself, & ties of blood & family; Catholic piety by contrast has long had a tendency to look on Him as though, even in Heaven, He were “tied to the apron-strings” of His Mother. IMHO certain kinds of Catholic art give comfort to this idea. Catholicism has a temptation to [try to] “domesticate” God – but this does not do justice to His Holiness; which is, surely, related to His Transcendence.
    Calvin does a lot to restore the balance. God is a God of free grace: which means (among other things) that God is not obliged to justify Himself to man. STM that Catholic piety would be a lot healthier if it were more informed by the Bible, because the Bible provides us with certain ideas about God that are canonical for revealing Who this God is, & “what God is like”.
    Can it be denied that “social structures” – including those in the Church – are constantly subject to Christ, His Lordship, His Judgement, & His Spirit ? That emphasis is one of the attractive things in Barth. It’s a blow at the roots of human, and Churchly, complacency.

  2. “This is a reason why *the Catholic Church*, in ways different than Islam, *does not need a Reformation*.”

    ## How can *that* be possible ???

  3. I heard the late Fr. Andrew Greeley speak on the Catholic Imagination years ago. Thanks for this excellent application of the connections between how we see the cosmos and practical realities like ecclesial structures!

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  6. Re:the study of literature as the royal road into understanding theology

    Undoubtedly. One day I innocently started with Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature, and ten years later ended up being baptized and confirmed into the Catholic Church. Careful, attentive methods of reading, free of literary theory and the hasty generalization, certainly pave the way for greater spiritual and theological understanding, particularly if one reads certain authors over others. I gather that it is this mode of reading which is promulgated in creative writing programs. As those programs proliferate, and as the possibilities and rewards of the literary life contract, one wonders whether theology mayn’t find new life among such people, who, trained in a nominalist method, may be in search of a metaphysical grounding when the worldly rewards of that method fail to materialize.

  7. I think this article is excellent for raising that Evangelical abuse is likely to be greater than currently reported. The simplest reason for that is that it is “hidden” as a structural problem because its perpetrators are lay individuals or individual preachers who can be easily disowned. (I disagree this doesn’t end up involving whole congregations or networks – from a victims perspective it still doesn’t acknowledge responsibility).

    However this article seems grossly optimistic about the progress of the Catholic church to solve its own problems. The greatest improvement in the Catholic church has been a shift in the view of the laity towards their clergy in light of the abuse – and a subsequent loss of freedom for abusers to operate.
    That’s the result of the growth in strength in secularism in even the most Catholic countries such as Ireland and Italy.

    That’s also the reformation the Church has needed to have.

    • It seems you missed the point about visibility. But maybe you also didn’t read the links about the types of reforms that have been put in place and are the envy of secular institutions? Some say they’re too harsh. That’s been the case in the States were you see stories of clerics being cleared of abuses after being smeared and tarred by the media and the hierarchy.

  8. There are certainly differences between hierarchical and non-hierarchical organizations in dealing with problems, and your article does well to cause reflection on that. The claims that Protestant problems are worse, that the Protestant victims “might be more numerous” and so on would seem to require some substantiation.

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