Licensed to save

In August, I delivered a sermon at the United Church that my parents attend, in Peterborough, Ontario. This month, there’s a story in the news that has me thinking back to my sermon.

Here’s an audio excerpt from the introduction, with a portion of the excerpt transcribed below it:

The text we’re about to read [Mark 3:1-6] says that authority can be used in one of two ways. Authority can be used to do good, or to do harm. It can be used to save a life, or to take a life.

As I was writing this sermon, I gave it the working title, “007 and Jesus”. That’s rather odd; I assure you, there’s no mention of James Bond in the text I’m about to read.

The thing about 007 is that he was licensed to kill, just as every secret service agent with the double-“0” designation was licensed to kill. James Bond is viewed as a glamorous character:  evidently, if you have the authority to kill, that’s pretty cool.

Jesus, on the other hand, didn’t have a double-“0” designation. He wasn’t licensed to kill; he was licensed to save. In my books, that’s even cooler than being licensed to kill.

The text that I’m about to read stands as a warning to the Church, in this era and in every era. It warns that we are to do good, not harm, to the vulnerable people who are entrusted to our protective care. That, like Jesus, the Church is licensed to save.

Here in Canada, there’s a story in the news that has me reflecting on that sermon. Bishop Raymond Lahey, of the Diocese of Antigonish, Nova Scotia, was arrested earlier this month:

Raymond Lahey was carrying on his laptop images of young boys engaged in sexual acts when he tried to re-enter Canada, according to a search warrant application released Thursday.

Some of the boys appeared to be as young as eight years of age, it states.

Father Lahey resigned as bishop of Antigonish the day after he was charged with possessing and importing child porn. The charges were not public at that point and he cited personal reasons for his decision.

A spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Halifax said Thursday night that she could not say whether Father Lahey had been on church business during his trip.

The search warrant application reveals that multiple red flags went off after the 69-year-old cleric flew from London to Ottawa last month. He was singled out for secondary search at the airport for no fewer than five specific reasons, one of them repeated travel to countries known as sources of child pornography.

The story gets even worse:

Through much of his career, [Father Lahey] had to deal with pain and anger over priestly sex scandals. He once asked his priests to pray for a month for people who had been abused as children by church officials and last month played a major role in negotiating a $15-million settlement for victims of a sexually abusive cleric. […]

[In June 2003], one of his priests, Rev. Hugh Vincent MacDonald, went on trial on 27 sex-related charges. One of [Rev. MacDonald’s] alleged victims committed suicide.

Six years later, Father Lahey played an instrumental role in negotiating a record $15-million settlement with Father MacDonald’s victims.

Last Aug. 7, Father Lahey was quoted in the news media as saying: “I want to formally apologize to every victim and to their families for the sexual abuse that was inflicted upon those who were instead entitled to the trust and protection of priests.”

And now he has been charged.

Both Archbishop Currie and Archbishop Anthony Mancini of Halifax voiced concern that Father Lahey’s arrest would rekindle torment and suffering among victims of past sexual abuse.

“Given the context of the church in parts of Atlantic Canada, particularly within the context of Bishop Lahey’s landmark agreement on the cases in the diocese of Antigonish, this is absolutely unfathomable,” said Prof. McGowan, “In the court of public opinion there is no silver lining to this story whatsoever.”

It’s just the sort of scenario I addressed in my sermon. This excerpt is from the conclusion:

The Christian Church is now burdened with 2,000 years of history. I’m happy to argue that the Church has done plenty of good in that time.

We can take credit for hospitals, which Christians began. We can take credit for universities, which Christians began. We can point to Mother Teresa, ministering among the poorest of the poor in the city of Calcutta, as an outstanding example of Christian compassion.

On the other hand:  there were the Crusades, and the witch trials, and the Church’s opposition to Galileo. Even residential schools, which begins to cut a little closer to the bone for us [i.e., for members of the United Church of Canada].

You might wonder, as you look over the 2,000 years of Church history, whether the Church was licensed to save or licensed to kill.

When we read the Gospels, we must recall that the Pharisees stand in the place of the Church. And that Jesus was sent by God as a prophet, to rebuke and correct the Church.

We must remember that we need to receive his rebuke in every generation. It’s not that the Pharisees were such bad people; it’s that this is an error that the Church slips into time and time and time again in its history.

We always need to receive this rebuke and this correction. Lest we suffer a failure of compassion for the hurting, vulnerable people in our midst; or worse yet, we fall into spiritual darkness.


p.s. I see that the Archbishop of Halifax has circulated a letter [pdf] in which he pours out his feelings, in light of Father Lahey’s arrest.

The letter asks, “Why Lord? […] What are you asking of me and of my priests?”

Surely the answer to that question is self-evident. (1) Priests should stop abusing vulnerable people. (2) Bishops and Archbishops should be utterly ruthless in punishing perpetrators of abuse.

The letter states, “Enough is enough!”

I couldn’t agree more. But the Church has earned a reputation for protecting its own (i.e., fellow priests) and ensuring that offenders have a soft landing elsewhere in the Church.

Instead, the Church should cast pedophile priests into outer darkness. Cast them out of the Church, to earn their own way in the world. Whether they prosper or starve, the Church should be utterly indifferent to their welfare.

It’s harsh, I know. But it’s consistent with the Gospels. And nothing else constitutes an adequate response, in light of the widespread nature of such acts among Roman Catholic priests. (Abuse seems to be particularly widespread along the eastern seaboard, both in Canada and the U.S.A.)

The Church, like Jesus, is licensed to save. It’s time that the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church took an unequivocal stance on that point:  which means taking an unequivocal stance against those who act as if they are licensed to kill.


5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. billarends
    Oct 19, 2009 @ 11:10:51

    My problem with this is I have heard Catholics argue that a sin is a sin regardless of how horrific we find that sin. Thus the church treats all sins as equal and forgives just as equally . The problem is not the forgiveness it is the repentance part. There is no forgiveness biblically without repentance. The bishop even after he was aware he was sinning continued. This is not an act of repentance. If we cannot trust him to stop sinning even after he is aware of his error, and after he has made a false show of repentance, he should be expelled from the church. Not because we cannot forgive him but we cannot trust him. Plain and simple .

    Can a leopard change his spots? Yes, but not if he keeps eating Antelopes.


  2. Stephen
    Oct 19, 2009 @ 13:44:17

    • Bill:
    I like the last line of your comment. It reminds me of the “wolf in sheep’s clothing” text that I linked to.

    It’s easy to develop a repentant conscience after you’ve been caught red-handed. As you mention, Bishop Lahey was very aware of the seriousness of the sin he was committing. To some extent, I’m sympathetic: we all commit sins knowing full well that what we’re doing is wrong. But when the sin involves preying on a minor, who presumably is being coerced (perhaps violently) into posing for these photos — it is an extremely serious sort of sin.

    But that isn’t the reason for the harsh response I advocate above. The reason is the systemic nature of the problem. The Roman Catholic Church has sent the message that priests who sexually abuse minors will be protected, by the Church, from the consequences of their sins. No wonder, then, that the problem is endemic — at least in some regions.

    Now the Church needs to send the opposite message: that abusers will not be harboured; sheltered from having to face an outraged public; provided for financially by being given another job elsewhere within the Church.

    Right now, Bishop Lahey is being provided with a residence among fellow priests in Ottawa.

    Frankly, I’m past caring about how sincerely Mr. Lahey repents now that he has been found out (allegedly). I’m concerned primarily for the victims. I’m mindful of the other priests — the ones who haven’t been caught yet.

    Let’s send a message to those priests, that the days are over when the Church will insure them against the fallout of being caught in an abusive, criminal act.

    Call it a “zero tolerance” policy. It’s time the Church adopted it.


  3. Snaars
    Oct 28, 2009 @ 18:58:53

    I appreciate where you are going with this article, and I’m in solemn agreement. Still, I can’t get rid of this vision of a 00-Jesus that you put in my head!


  4. Stephen
    Oct 29, 2009 @ 07:40:26

    It’s gratifying that my image is sticking with you. You’ll remember the message forever, now that the image has grabbed hold of you.

    Of course, you’re probably picturing Jesus wielding an Uzi, which wasn’t quite my point ….


  5. billarends
    Oct 29, 2009 @ 09:31:51

    So now we have the visual image of Jesus with an Uzi. I however, have the following words going through my head- “The name’s Christ,; Jesus Christ.”

    However it is better than the image of a church that accepts and easily forgets such abuse.


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