February 23, 2010

Clergy Sexual Misconduct and the Abuse of Power

While I usually get a range of responses, I was struck by the fact that this year three of my students described situations in which family members left the Roman Catholic Church due to a priest’s sexual misconduct. The concerns of my students, along with a recent incident taking place in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, point to the need for a critical reassessment of the Roman Catholic Church’s implementation of policies surrounding clergy sexual misconduct on a local and global scale. The incident in question, as reported in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette,** is described below:

After deeming allegations of sexual molestation of a 16 year old girl in the 1970s credible, the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh announced the reassignment of Fr. Alvin Adams as a chaplain to the Sisters at Whitehall convent. According to the Rev. Ronald Lengwin, spokesperson for the Diocese, Adams’ duties would be restricted to sacramental ministry to the sisters who lived there. The next day the Diocese revoked the assignment due to complaints from parents of children who attend a day care located on convent grounds. When asked about the decision-making process involved in the priest’s reassignment, Lengwin explained:

"Rome would say that there was no crime at that time [1976] because a 16-year-old was considered an adult. In a prior case, not in this diocese, a priest had to be returned to some form of very restricted ministry.”

While the diocese was aware of the day care on the convent grounds they did not believe it posed a problem because it was in a separate building from the convent AND the priest in question was never accused of interest in small children.

Fr. Adams maintains his innocence.

[**Sources: “Diocese Reassigns Priest Over Abuse Charges” and “Accused Cleric won’t Serve in Convent, Diocese Says,” by Ann Rodgers on February 19, 2010 and February 20, 2010, respectively.]

In the local media frenzy surrounding this issue, conversations have centered on the young girl’s age at the time of alleged molestation. Diocesan officials maintain that because she was 16 years old at the time the abuse began in 1976 and legally considered an adult by canon law, “no crime” was committed, and, therefore, they were unable remove Fr. Adams from all ministerial responsibilities. In light of this legality, Fr. Adams’ case cannot be classified under the jurisdiction of child molestation. Given the fact that the incident occurred with a student at the Catholic high school in which he was serving as vice-principal, this classification seems to go against the spirit of the law. While the issue of the girl’s age with respect to canon law is important from a legal perspective, it obscures the real issue at stake in cases of sexual misconduct: the abuse of power. And, in this case, gender inequality plays a large part of the equation. Until these issues are addressed, the Church’s efforts at healing and reconciliation among its members will continue to limp along.

While the Pittsburgh Diocese did the right thing by rescinding Adams’ placement [and I think their quick response points to a sincere effort (on the part of Church officials) to listen to concerns of the local community], it does not address the fact that for 34 years Adams continued to serve in a public ministerial capacity. Nor does it suggest that there are any substantive practical consequences for sexual misconduct. Moreover, in reassigning a priest charged with allegations of sexual misconduct—on the grounds of a technicality—the Diocese missed a critical opportunity to take a stand against the ills of domestic and sexual abuse, both which of have a high prevalence in Allegheny county. [According to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Allegheny, Fayette, and Somerset counties have some of the highest rates of reported domestic and sexual abuse in the state.] Clearly, this story points to continued need for ongoing reassessment of the policies surrounding sexual misconduct and abuse in the Roman Catholic Church as well as a greater involvement of members of the local community in addressing the reality of violence against women.

February 18, 2010

Women, Religion and Nicholas Kristof

I recently read with interest Nicholas Kristof's piece in the New York Times about the importance of religion in dealing with justice for women. While we who have been doing that work for decades think it is old hat, he and the Elders, a group of senior statespersons, are apparently new to the discussion. My piece on this can be found here.

I would welcome discussion here on how we can get our work our to a broader audience, how we can operationalize it for policy use.

I look forward to your creative ideas.

Mary E. Hunt

February 16, 2010

The Feminist Imagination

I was on retreat at Canterbury Cathedral in England all of last week. A luminous and powerful place – the 11th-century undercroft is a truly extraordinary place to pray. One morning at breakfast, we met a lovely woman who was one of the first female deacons in the Church of England, ordained in 1948. Naturally, she had been subjected to all sorts of indignities and invective from male clergy and lay people (male and female) opposed to the ordination of women. A courageous and gentle foremother whose witness should have been heartening to me – but instead, I was saddened by two things. First, she said that the hardest thing about serving as a deacon was standing there as the worship liturgy unfolded, “knowing that my very presence was a symbol of disunity.” Second, she was anxious to assure us that she was “not a feminist” but simply had felt called to diaconal ministry. It was clear that these are her current views, not reportage about how she used to feel years ago.

The idea that systemic misogyny and androcentrism might be the actual sources of “disunity” in disputes over the ordination of women does not seem to occur to many people, even people who are in favor of progressive change and who fight local micro-battles with verve. And that “feminist” would be a noxious label to a woman who was a pioneer in breaking through a gender-related ecclesial barrier – I understand it (she’s rejecting the caricature of feminism that was current some decades ago among its detractors), but it deeply disheartens me. Now, I’m as mired in my own presuppositions and cultural constraints as the next person. But nevertheless, I am staggered by the wholesale deforming of women’s imaginations that has been perpetrated for millennia in androcentric cultures. What has been lost is incalculable.

I’m teaching a course this semester on the work of biblical theologian Walter Brueggemann. For years, Brueggemann has worked with the category of “imagination” as the spiritual faculty by means of which we experience transformation when we encounter the Word of God in Scripture or in preaching. The God whom Brueggemann sees in the Hebrew Scriptures is tumultuous, odd, and unruly. Regular encounters with this God can train our imaginations to become restless, unsettled from our habitual numbness and false assurances, open to radical new possibilities. Thinking of the ordination of that octogenarian Anglican deacon puts me in mind of this from Brueggemann’s The Threat of Life: Sermons on Pain, Power, and Weakness (Fortress, 1996, p. 86): “we are created and ordained for a deeper, more demanding restlessness. It is that other restlessness beyond virtue, so elusive and so urgent, that both satisfies us and places us in crisis.” I hope that all of us – whether 85 or 45 or 25, whether Episcopalian or Wiccan or atheist – can dare to enter that place of restlessness, and that we can bear the crisis of seeing with wide-open eyes the systems of oppression that have deformed our imaginations for so long.

Carolyn J. Sharp

Associate Professor of Hebrew Scriptures

Yale Divinity School

February 9, 2010

New sexuality education curriculum worth remembering

In the January 27, 2010 "Justice for All" blog put out by the American Association of People with Disabilities, there was an announcement from Green Mountain Self-Advocates about a new sexuality education curriculum, designed for team teaching by people with developmental disabilities and support staff, teaching together.

Glancing through the table of contents and the sample lesson plan (on the Planned Parenthood website), I noticed that the curriculum appears to comfortably include same-sex relationships.

Here's the blurb from the Green Mountain Self-Advocates:

"New Sexuality Education Curriculum for People with Developmental Disabilities"

"We are excited to send you information about a curriculum developed by Planned Parenthood of Northern New England and Green Mountain Self Advocates. This curriculum, the first of its kind in the country, is designed for people with developmental disabilities and their support staff to work together as a team to teach a sexuality education series. Go to this web site to view the table of contents and a sample lesson."


February 7, 2010

"Crippled" Woman Bound by Satan for Eighteen Years (Luke 13:16)

We who are called to a ministry in solidarity with people in historically marginalized groups know their/our struggles against the poison of problematic biblical texts. We are acutely aware of potential scriptural minefields. We who are called to preach a prophetic message -- to re-educate ourselves and the larger community and deconstruct what some call biblical texts of terror -- struggle with what always seems to be a hopelessly inadequate amount of space or time:
20 minutes in a pulpit
50 minutes in front of a lecture hall
650 words in a blog post
We who are called, ask, "God, I can expend 650 words in one breath. How do I say what is needed in so few words?"

We do what we can -- and sometimes we skip over those difficult lines of scripture. In the too-short time we have in the pulpit or at the front of the lecture hall, we ask ourselves difficult questions. Do we derail our positive message by bringing up the troubling text; hope people will tune in to a second sermon; or hope to fit it into a later lecture in which we will work on that distressing text?

Can we change the dominant oppressive paradigm if, when all is said and done, we "sort of skip over some of it" in our teaching and preaching?

I recently had the privilege of watching a televised sermon "Healing the Infirmity of Spirit" preached by one of our sister-colleagues Barbara Lundblad, Professor of Preaching at Union Theological Seminary, whose commitment to anti-oppression ministry is deservedly acclaimed. She preached from Luke 13:10-17 -- the story about a woman who had been bent over ("crippled") for eighteen years but who stood up straight when Jesus touched her. Watching the sermon, I admired her homiletic skills -- how she wove commentary about inclusion and accessibility with scriptural phrases to help listeners connect positive contemporary ideas with the text, and how she preached about spiritual rather than physical healing to encourage listeners to disconnect the archaic ideas of disability and miraculous cures.

There is so much that needs explaining about the ways in which disabilities are portrayed in scripture, where they are most often used as symbols to demonstrate miracles -- associating disability with sinfulness, despair, suffering (a good example is the Pool of Bethesda story in John 5:2-14) and with demon possession. In fact, in Lundblad's selected text, Jesus says that he is setting a woman free "whom Satan had bound for eighteen long years," (Luke 13:16). This was obviously not something that Lundblad wanted to include in her disability-affirming sermon -- she didn't bring up the text's Satan-and-disability link.

In a post-sermon interview, when the interviewer asked about her omission, she smiled (a bit ruefully, I thought) and replied, "I think that's a very tough part of the text. I sort of skipped over it, as preachers sometimes do." My heart resonated with her reply. I ask readers not to think that I am, in any way, being negative about Barbara Lundblad or her liberating work, yet when I heard her say that, I felt a pang. I felt that she had, perhaps, cheated the listeners of an opportunity to learn something about the way our Bible portrays people with disabilities.

No, on reflection, what I really felt was that by omitting that "very tough part of the text" she had missed an opportunity for solidarity with people with disabilities whose lives are sill affected by the poisonous bits in the Bible. Because those church-going people who encounter that "bound by Satan" line without having the tools for any sort of critical analysis, may continue to glance at the woman with a disability sitting in the next pew -- and wonder.

(628 words)