When preachers fall from grace

Bishop Thomas Tobin of the diocese of Providence, Rhode Island has an interesting column in The Rhode Island Catholic (10/18-07). Here are some excerpts from the complete article.

A recent headline in a Catholic website caught my attention: “Trust evaporating – Poll finds clergy trustworthiness slips precipitously.” The poll surveyed attitudes about the clergy in Canada. According to the survey, 61 percent of Canadians trust church representatives, far below the 97 percent who trust firefighters and the 94 percent who trust nurses. The good news in this poll, if there is any, is that clergy still rank above the pollsters themselves (59 percent), journalists (48 percent) and politicians (just 15 percent). Small comfort it seems.

Although this particular story doesn’t report it, without a doubt, the trustworthiness of clergy in the United States has suffered a similar sharp decline in recent years. Most of this, of course, is related to the well-documented clergy sexual abuse crisis. And while Catholic priests have received most of the attention, there have been abuses and scandals in just about every church and denomination – evangelicals, mainline Protestants, Jewish, Muslim, and homemade religions to be sure.


But my question is this: Does misbehavior of the messengers invalidate the truth of their message? And should it?

When I was in the minor seminary, we had very strict rules about the care of our dormitory rooms. They had to be neat and clean all the time – beds made, clothes in closets, windows spotless, sinks shining and floors dust free. We were subject to room check at any time, and a messy room could result in a couple of dreaded demerits.

The priest prefect on our corridor was a holy terror, especially demanding of clean rooms. But, we learned quickly, his personal faculty suite was a pigsty, a total disaster. When we objected that his messy room invalidated his strict enforcement of the law in our rooms, he said without apology, “Gentlemen, even the lawbreaking judge must uphold the law.”

And that, it seems to me, is how we have to approach the reality of imperfect preachers. Every preacher is a weak, flawed, sinful creature, “an earthen vessel” in Pauline terminology. But if we wait for perfect preachers, our pulpits will be empty. Nonetheless, the truth of their message stands or falls on its own merits.

In more philosophical terms, the validity of the message comes from its inherent truth, not the personal worthiness of the messenger.

Catholic theology has an analogous situation, when we speak about “ex opere operato” in the dispensation of the sacraments. That means that the grace of the sacrament comes from the work itself, not from the sanctity of the minister. Even a priest in mortal sin can validly confer baptism, forgive sins, and celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

So too, an unworthy preacher can deliver a truthful message. I’m conscious of this in my own ministry all the time. When I speak about abortion, stem cell research, gay marriage, immigration or any other public issue, I make no claim to personal sanctity or moral superiority. I could be (and in fact am) an abject sinner but the message I present is valid because it’s rooted in the Gospel of Christ and the teachings of the Church, realities strong enough to overcome my personal peccability.


People in other walks of life besides clergy know the importance of teaching regardless of their personal shortcomings. Parents are far from perfect, yet they try to give a good example to their children. Police officers aren’t always award-winning citizens, yet they have to arrest others. And, as our seminary prefect reminded us, even a lawbreaking judge must uphold the law.

This apparent dichotomy shouldn’t be construed as a submission to moral complacency or an acceptance of personal hypocrisy. If we deliberately say one thing and do another, that’s hypocrisy. But it’s not hypocrisy to do our work and fulfill our obligations though we’re scarred by personal imperfection.

So, when you read about or hear about the moral failures of the clergy, in any denomination, you have every right to be disappointed. When they fail, pray for them, encourage them and demand that they do better. But don’t use their sins as an excuse to walk away from the church or deny the truth of their message. When you do that, their failure becomes your problem.

We all know people who have left the practice of the faith claiming that the Church has forfeited its right to speak on moral issues. Does Bishop Tobin's response satisfy that complaint? How has the sexual abuse crisis impacted your willingness to heed the moral teaching of the Church. Like the bishop I am keenly aware of my own sins and failings as I preach and teach. Do you have a like experience where there is a disconnect between what you say and expect of others and your own fidelity to the truth and your standing as a moral person?


  1. I wish that Bishop Tobin had included that some hypocritical preachers do not deserve to be listened to and, in fact, must be removed from ministry, i.e., those who have had credible allegations of child abuse brought against them. Without this acknowledgement, I think Bishop Tobin's points are not as strong as they might have been. I personally feel that it is unfortunate for us and for them that some have walked away from the Church because of the abuse crisis. I think in order to be effective in creating changes in the Church we need to remain in the Church.

  2. The Donatist heresy of the 4th century taught, according to the New Catholic Encyclopedia, that

    "... the Church is here and now without spot or blemish. They neglected to observe the tension that exists between the present state of the Church and its eschatological state. For Augustine, the Church is still the Church of sinners on Earth ... "

    Bishop Tobin says in the full text:
    "The failure of clergy to live up to their calling is sad, but not new. One historian observes, “If polls could have been taken during the Reformation in the 15th and 16th centuries, or during the 18th century in Western Europe, the clergy might have ranked lower in the trust scale than they do now.”

    Another Historian Reports:
    "In Southern Germany and Bohemia [mid 15th century], a disintegrating Utraquist Church witnessed the rapid rise of the Unitas Fratrum, part of a larger pan-European Donatist upsurge. The most important constitutive factor in the formation of this move­ment was precisely the fear of the "wicked priest." But outside Bohemia also the problem of "the wicked priest" is pondered and thus presents one of the most important pre-Reformation theological challenges to the medieval Church."

    (Obermann,Heiko, Harvest of Medieval Theology, Harvard University Press, 1963, p.221)

    Deja Vu all over again?

  3. Deja Vu indeed...it is difficult to continue to remember that in any situation, accurate or innacurate, fact or fiction, complete disclosure or half-truth, there remains a common thread...we are all humans, flawed and sinful; we are often inclined to "protect our own turf" and cover ourselves very carefully. However somewhere, in the midst of it all, remains a an important truth that must be attended to.

    I do not think the sexual abuse crisis has drastically impacted my fidelity to the moral teachings of the church "the truth"..but I do find it increasingly difficult to hear it proclaimed by many of the messengers who currently deliver it...Whatever happened to the fact that our bishops are servant shepherds? I am not feeling particularly well shepherded or served by them these days...BUT I do agree with daisy..we can not effect change by walking away.

  4. Q. How has the sexual abuse crisis impacted your willingness to heed the moral teaching of the Church.

    The sexual abuse crisis has caused me to examine more closely, and question some of the moral teachings and practices of the church. It has also made me keenly aware that the leaders of our church frequently say one thing and do the opposite. They twist the truth and use secrecy as a shield. They do not hold themselves accountable. They use the past tense to distance themselves from their own actions. (i.e.“Mistakes were made.”)

    How can the church have such respect for the unborn, yet tolerate and cover-up the rape of our children? How can the church preach justice, yet treat the victims of their own priests with such contempt, cruelty, and injustice? How can the church oppose the death penalty, but encourage parishioners to vote for a president who relentlessly bombs innocent women and children? Can we ignore the murder of these innocent victims because the president agrees with the church’s teachings against gay marriage and abortion?

    Q. Do you have a like experience where there is a disconnect between what you say and expect of others and your own fidelity to the truth and your standing as a moral person?

    Yes, I am not perfect. I make mistakes. Yet, there are mistakes and there are mistakes. I believe that intention plays a huge part here. The leadership of our church intended to hide the priests who raped our children. They moved them from parish to parish enabling them to do it again and again. When they were caught, they covered it up, they did not behave as Jesus taught us. I, and most people, have never made mistakes that had such a devastating impact on so many children and their families.

    This idea of taking the edge off these horrific crimes by saying, “nobody’s perfect” is very dangerous. It has lead to a rush to forgiveness of the offending clergy. It also demonizes and dismisses those who dare to question the hierarchy. Also, the fact that sexual abuse was seen as a character defect and a sin vs. a crime is very important. Priests have the power to forgive sins. Their arrogance lead them to believe there was no need to report the crimes to the police.

  5. Michael,

    You are right on with everything you have wrote. Thank you for the courage to say what you think. What these priests who've abused these children have done, are sins; but most definitely, crimes. There is no excuse, and it should not be forgotten and thought of something as simply as everyone makes mistakes. They committed crimes and sins that pierced the soul of young lives; some that will never recover.

  6. Dear Michael,
    Thank you for saying what so many of us feel but have never put to words. "Mistakes were made"...NO...crimes were committed and lives were broken, trust was taken away, and lives were lost. How many people have taken thier own lives because it was drilled into them that the guilt and shame from the abuse was thier fault? How many people cannot recover because of the same beliefs?
    We must not let this crisis of rape and molestation slip through the cracks now that a significant amount of time has passed. For the victims, no amount of time can ease thier pain. We must be relentless in keeping this in the forefront. As far as forgiveness goes...I truly believe that some things are so horrific that there can be no forgiveness. We then hand it over to God? Sorry, I believe that forgiveness of such despicable acts should not be available. As someone who has lived through the hell of abuse and the aftermath for many years, I can not find any form of forgiveness in my heart. And, I believe that God understands and accepts that. Thank you Michael for giving me the nerve to speak these words. I applaud your comments.

  7. Michael: You give clear voice to the anger of so very many who grieve the crimes, bad judgments, tragic mistakes and ignorance of those whose decisions or indecision allowed such an horrific situation to occur. With you, I, too, examine more closely the statements, decisions and practices of our church and its leadership. There’s so much in your second paragraph that deserves comment – more than I’m able to offer here. One thing I would say, however, is that if you hear any church official encouraging Catholics (or anyone) to vote for a particular candidate, that church official is speaking outside the boundaries imposed on him by the church and is jeopardizing his institution’s relationship to the state. Virtually all Catholic clergy are aware of this and abide by it.

    I don’t believe that Bishop Tobin is trying to take the edge off these horrific crimes by saying “nobody’s perfect.” His intention here is to speak not so much about the sexual abuse that took place but rather the impact of that tragic history on the life of the church and how it affects how people hear or tune out the church’s moral voice. In doing so he refers to the imperfections of all of us but I believe he certainly understands, as you put it, that “there are mistakes and there are mistakes.”

    I haven’t seen a rush to forgive the offending clergy. What I have observed in the last five years is that most people I’ve encountered reserve nearly all their anger and accusation for the bishops and other administrators but rarely say much at all about the offending child molesters. I’ve read that not as forgiveness but as acknowledgment that these are seriously sick individuals.

    Regina: You, too, give voice to the anger and the thoughts and feelings of many: mistakes were made; crimes were committed and went unreported; lies were told to protect the wrong people; innocent lives were damaged and even lost. That such behavior was and still is true today of many people in all walks of life -and even in the families of the abused- is absolutely no excuse for what the Church did and failed to do for so long.

    I understand that victims of abuse and many others find it difficult and even impossible to think in any forgiving way of those who perpetrated such pain or allowed it to be inflicted on the innocent. At the same time I cannot agree that anyone or anyone’s deeds are beyond the reach of God’s mercy. To accept that I would need to give up my faith in the redeeming love and sacrifice of Jesus. I am not suggesting that Jesus offers cheap grace or that forgiveness for serious sin and crime can be had for nothing. Such mercy is for the repentant heart and comes at the cost of nothing less than Christ’s life.

  8. Concord Pastor, I am not saying that specific candidates names were mentioned. The church understands that they put their tax-exempt status at risk if they mention specific candidates. By reinforcing the importance of voting for candidates that are against gay marriage and abortion, they don't have to mention candidates names. Some bishops have even said that they would withold the Eucharist from Catholic candidates that didn't agree with church teachings. Would Jesus withhold his precious body and blood from a sinner? Why do our bishops do so?

    I agree that Bishop Tobin is focusing on the impact on the life of the church. That's the whole problem!! The bishops continue to put the church first and foremost. They should put the Survivors and their families first and foremost. How many young lives and families have been destroyed by the decisions made and actions taken by the leaders of this church? Not a single bishop has been punished by the pope for his crimes.

    Cardinal Law was taken to Rome to avoid indictment. Priests who played central roles in the scandal and cover-up in Boston were rewarded by being promoted to bishop and receiving their own diocese. Why is Bishop McCormick still the bishop in NH? In addition to his central role in the Boston scandal,he made a deal with the NH AG to conduct annual audits to avoid personal prosecution. Then he dragged his feet, argued about who would pay for the audits, and half-cooperated with the audits, fighting every step of the way. Is that Christ-like behavior?

    To this day Bishop Bruskewitz has admitted that he has not followed the USCCB's own charter for the protection of children. Where is the "fraternal correction" that the bishops promised us five years ago? It's non-existent.

    Cardinal Francis George, who may be the next president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, as recently as this year, ignored the Bishop's Charter's guidelines by allowing an accused priest to stay in ministry. The priest abused at least 2 boys AFTER THE BISHOP KNEW HE WAS ACCUSED and ALLOWED HIM TO STAY IN MINISTRY.

    Cardinal O'Malley refuses to post the names of credibly accused and self-admitted sexual abusers on the RCAB website, despite the fact that 12 other diocese have done so. He knows the names of priests with credible allegations that have never been made public and he refuses to publish them. Don't I, as a parent, have a right to know who these men are so I can protect my children? They were never reported to the police so they are not in the criminal database. A CORI check on them will be 100% clean because they were never reported to the police.

    Cardinal O'Malley must be "forgiving" these priests. He won't publish their names. He won't publicly identify them. His novena tour was meant to be the final act. He wants us to believe that the crisis is over, let's move on. He doesn't want to talk about this anymore. He bans VOTF because they have the nerve to keep bringing this up. They're "confrontational". Wasn't Jesus "confrontational"?

    I agree that God's mercy is all powerful. God will judge each of us on the last day. That is His job, not mine. The sisters of St. Joseph taught me, as a boy, that in order to receive forgiveness we must a) confess our sins b) do penance c) amend our lives. The church has not, and refuses to, amend its life by punishing those responsible for these crimes.

    I believe that God's love is all healing. I pray every day that He will heal every person that the leaders of our church, by their intentional actions, have so deeply, deeply hurt. But that will happen in God's time, not our time.
    We cannot remain silent. Jesus would not remain silent.

  9. Dear Michael, Once again I applaud your courage and thoughts on this particular subject. I agree with everything you have said. I would like to add to it, by referring to Concord Pastor's remarks and how they are intertwined in my mind. In no way am I trying to take away the failures the church has continued to follow. But, as a society as a whole, we all fail miserably when we, as families, friends and aquaintances refuse to acknowledge, educate and hold accountable, not only the pedophile priests, but also the perpetrators within our own back yard. By not embracing and believing children who are still being abused we only pave the way for the abusers to continue without fear, simply because they know only too well how to manipulate, scare and shame the victims. As a church we need to grieve, yet learn and be open and up front about what has gone on, and what continues to go on. We have failed, and continue to fail miserably by not disclosing names. Keeping open the doors for this to continue...Unacceptable!
    But, as a society, we too have to find a way to communicate better with our children. We need to find a way to open the hearts of these kids so that they know and believe that there are safe, loving adults, and address the issues that cause them to remain silent. I don't know how we can achieve it, but we need to find a way soon because each day children are losing thier innocence, thier trust, and thier lives. It is with a heavy heart that I know that there are so many children, and now adults that have lived through this hell, and continue to struggle day to day with trying to simply survive. What I am trying to say is that we need to do all we can, from every aspect of life, not just through the priests and our church. As despicable as the churches refusal to acknowledge these issues, we all need to educate ourselves and our children to be more aware of the boundaries that can be crossed and how to avoid the traps set by these monsters. It is unfortunate that our children must be a part of such a "grown up" issue. We all want our children to be able to remain innocent and excempt from such issues, but in this day and age, we have no other choice.

  10. Couldn't have said it better myself both Michael and regina. What a sad state of circumstances when we must address such difficult issues with our children. The pedophiles are not just priests, although we hold them in much higher regard.And we expect better results from the discloser of the priests that have not yet been named. The pedophiles are everywhere and still stalking thier next victims. God help them ans us.

  11. Michael: I agree with almost all of what you've written.

    From my perspective, however, it sometimes seems that when one is not actively advocating for the victims and condemning the perpetrators and their superiors, one is often judged as not caring about the survivors and of coddling the authorities.

    I don't know Bishop Tobin - have never met the man and I don't know his history in the abuse crisis. But I can understand his interest in raising the question about how the crisis has turned people off to the church's capacity to be a moral voice. And I don't read his question as somehow putting the church before or ahead of the needs of the abused.

    Every Sunday as I prepare to preach I know that among those who hear me will be people who want me to say more about abortion, more about same-sex marriage, more about the needs of the third world, more about the war, more about... well, the list goes on. I cannot preach about these issues all the time but the fact that I don't mention these critical issues all or even most of the time does not mean that I don't believe they are important. More often, I try to preach in a way that people with a variety of concerns and questions can apply the substance of my homily to the issues and concerns most important in their minds and lives.

    That the Church does go on does not necessarily mean that it goes on at the expense of unresolved issues. As I've mentioned elsewhere on this blog, in our parish we pray every Sunday "the mission of the Church to preach the gospel; for all the parishes of the Archdiocese of Boston; for the healing of those who have been abused and betrayed; and for the restoration of trust and confidence in the Church..."

    I believe that the Church's mission cannot move ahead fully until there is much greater resolution of the questions raised in the past five years. But at the same time, I do not believe that the questions can be allowed to freeze the Church's mission until they have been resolved. I live and work somewhere in the middle of all that and, like you, I pray for healing every day, on all sides. And, like you, I know that we cannot remain silent. I'm grateful for your voice here in this forum.

  12. I just read the comments that followed my original one. There certainly is so much emotion on this. I would just like to add a couple of things. I found out in the last couple of years that a priest I had known very well from the time I was 10 years old was credibly accused five years after his death. I was stunned when I learned this. I pray for him every day. I also say a prayer each day for all those who have abused children, young people and vulnerable people that they may come to know the damage they have done, ask God for forgiveness, knowing that he is a loving and merciful God who forgives each of us our sins if we are truly sorry. It goes without saying that I pray for those who have been abused, but I think the abusers need our prayers as well. But for the grace of God go I.

  13. Today is yet another dark day in the continuing nightmare of all Catholics, but especially victims of sexual abuse by priests.

    Today the US Conference of Catholic Bishops elected as their president Cardinal Francis George who is complicit in not reporting a sexually abusive priest to the police and not removing him from ministry. As a result of Cardinal George's inaction, more children were sexually abused by the priest that Cardinal George allowed to remain in ministry. This did not happen 20 years ago. This happened within the last year. Cardinal George did not follow the policy that he presented to the Pope in Rome.

    This is so sad, it brings me to tears. I say it again. The leaders of our church have no moral voice because they have proven to us time after time that they have no credibility, no accountability, no understanding, no compassion when it comes to their sexual abuse of our children. They continue to protect the priest and ignore the victims.

    To understand the complete tragedy of Cardinal George's election please go to:



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