The image still haunts me. The narrative in an international short-story magazine described a young, bare-bottomed boy walking down a rural road, sobbing without ceasing and bleeding from his rectum. I couldn't take stories like that and didn't renew my subscription. But the phenomenon persists.
Last month Global Ministries missionary Xuyen Dangers spoke to a brown-bag luncheon group in Cleveland about her work in Laos. "Do you know what our biggest problem is with children?" she asked. "Think of the news," she said. "It's child sexual abuse."
The news is horrible. Hundreds of children sexually abused by pastors over decades. And all the while the church was passing the perpetrators along to other unwitting parishes where other innocent children would be abused.
Could it happen in the UCC? Of course. Sin is part of our human condition and is no respecter of denominational differences. Is it likely to happen? No. For more than a decade, the UCC has had safeguards in effect to minimize accepting either employees or volunteers with a history of sexual misconduct—and to prevent "passing them along." There is no possibility of saying, for example, that a person is a fine minister except that he or she cannot work with children. Ordination to ministry "conveys authority to function in all settings for ministry, including ministry involving children," according to a recent UCC document called "Clergy Misconduct" (on the website at www.ucc.org/ministers.
The standard is clear. The same document states, "The UCC defines as unethical any 'sexualized behavior within the ministerial relationship.' This includes behaviors ranging from sexual harassment to rape to pedophilia and sexual exploitation." The statement adds, "By focusing on pedophilia, the media ignores or minimizes the harm to thousands of adult victims of clergy abuse." On the other hand, if a UCC minister is known to suffer from pedophilia, his or her ministerial standing is revoked. Period.
UCC policies and procedures also state that anyone responding to cases of child abuse is to report each incident to the appropriate secular authorities. The Rev. Nancy Taylor, Massachusetts Conference Minister, has been among the Bay State's leaders in shaping proposed legislation that will require clergy and church employees to report suspect cases of sexual abuse to the state. "This legislation makes clergy 'mandated reporters,'" she says. "It shifts the ground under our clergy about confidentiality and will help protect children when clergy hear of a child being neglected or harmed in any way, not just sexually."
Those of us who love the church may want to protect it, especially when the news may seem harmful to the church. But protecting the institutional church is the wrong priority when the church or its ministers are accused of, or involved in, wrongdoing. It is far better to expose the church, no less than the rest of the world, to the light of God's truth. God sent Jesus Christ to redeem the world—including the church—from itself. This does not exempt the church from its role "as a corporate citizen within this culture," says the UCC statement, nor make it "immune from the responsibility of acting in compliance with local, state and federal law."
Jesus tells his disciples that children embody the characteristics of those who would know the reign of God. I cringe at the image of childlike wonder being damaged or ruined by sexual abuse. But I praise God for a church that is open about its efforts to protect children from those who would do them harm.
The Rev. W. Evan Golder is editor of the national edition of United Church News.