WASHINGTON (RNS)—When Sarah Joy Hays learned two years ago her pastor in Baton Rouge, La., had an extramarital affair with a woman in their church—a woman who had been her spiritual mentor many years—she was angry and confused.
“I got pregnant out of wedlock, and she was one of the first people I told,” Hays recalled. “She kind of pastored and mentored me through it.
“To find out she was actively involved in this affair throughout that—that’s where I had the hardest time, figuring out how to react to that. I was going through something that was very obvious, an ‘external sin.’ And she was in the same situation, essentially, but nobody knew.”
Both the pastor and the woman with whom he had an affair were disciplined by their denomination, and he was removed from the pastorate, Hays said.
Two years later, the small congregation has a new pastor, and many members have taken advantage of periodic one-on-one and group counseling provided by their denomination, achieving some measure of healing. But Hays said she still is guarded spiritually.
“It causes you to question any amount of wisdom and discernment from then on,” Hays said. “It helps determine trust and how you give away trust.”
Sense of self affected by betrayed trust
What do people of faith do when they learn the person they trusted to teach them about God actually is a predator? What if the faith leader they admired all their lives turns out to be more scoundrel than saint?
“Part of what happens to us, on a much deeper level than the initial shock, disbelief, disappointment or outrage, is that our sense of ourselves is affected negatively,” said Lallene Rector, president of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Illinois, where she has been an associate professor of psychology of religion and pastoral psychotherapy since 1986.
“To the extent that we have felt enhanced in our own self-esteem by our affiliation with these leaders, part of what we may experience (often unawares) is a deflation of our own self-worth,” Rector said.
“The failure of these idealized figures can strike at the very heart of our own longing for a kind of perfection,” left over from childhood disappointments in parents and other adults, said Rector.
“Add God to that mix—the clergy as a role representative of God—and it’s psychologically intoxicating.”
Consider biblical examples
The Bible can be instructive when it comes to spiritual leaders falling from grace—but perhaps not in the way some people might think.
For example, take King David—a morally complicated man, at best. Nevertheless, Scripture describes him as “the apple of God’s eye.” It’s a paradox often invoked to defend faith leaders—and others—who behave badly.
“David is like these pastors in that he is lionized for the things that he did, like expanding boundaries and whatnot, and a tradition of overlooking” the bad things he did, said Wil Gafney, associate professor of Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth.
But Gafney said the biblical king’s story is not meant to be a prescription for how anyone should behave. “Just because God did something wonderful with (David) doesn’t mean we should do all the things he did.”
From her reading of the biblical account, Gafney believes David raped Bathsheba.
“The text says he sent men to get her. That evaporates consent,” Gafney said.
“I think we need to be able to not hang a thing around someone’s neck forever, but be honest and not sweep it under the rug. That means allowing brokenness to be broken.”
True repentance involves accountability
Because David’s story is about “how we deal with a beloved leader,” Gafney said, some adopt the attitude, “Well, it was all worth it.” Others want to leave the past behind.
“But others choose to say, ‘Let’s be real about this person and this is part of that legacy that doesn’t go away.’ And it doesn’t go away, because when we don’t hold him accountable for it in our telling, we then give other people permission,” Gafney said.
“Christians have evolved into this understanding of repentance that is not biblical—that it’s about saying, ‘I’m sorry,’ and hopefully not doing the thing again.”
But that’s only the first layer of repentance, Gafney insisted. “From the Hebrew Bible forward, reparation is at the heart of repentance. … Yes, your profound sorrow, your turning your life around—that’s part of it—but you’ve still never made it right,” she said.
If the ramifications of one person’s failure can seem endless, the failure of an institution means restitution on another scale. A moral catastrophe like the systemic cover-up by bishops and other Catholic leaders cataloged in the 1,300-page Pennsylvania grand jury report released in August “demands public and sincere lamentation from every segment of the Body of Christ,” said Richard Rohr, the Franciscan priest and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, N.M., in a recent statement. “Only then can deep healing begin.”
But the Catholic Church has more than just sinful behavior to account for, Rohr noted. “It also demands public ownership, repentance, and reform of our very immature teaching in regard to sexuality in general, male power issues in particular, and our ‘enforced’ understanding of celibacy, which will predictably produce this kind of result,” he said.
“This shadowy material will keep emerging unless we own it and hold it fully accountable.”