How it happens
Our brothers and sisters in the Roman Catholic Church are in agony, once again, over the incidence of abuse by the ordained among them, compounded by the dysfunctional --and sometimes, evil -- actions of their bishops. I offer no unsolicited advice to them, which would be presumptuous; only my prayers are added to theirs. That said, I think it behooves us all to ponder how an ecclesiastical organization gets itself into this situation.
There are four steps along this particular descensus.
The first is that of clerical sin. We clergy are sinners like all the others we pastor, so it's not surprising that some of us sin in ways that call into question our standing in the church. There are things that can get you bounced from a particular employment, perhaps even disqualifying you from the clergy altogether. And it's not that any of us set out to do these things, but temptation presents itself and we either weren't prepared for it, or didn't know (or were in denial of) what was lurking in our hearts to begin with. And there you go. Even as the rest of us find it our sad and painful duty to hold you to account, we also breathe that too-frequent prayer, "there but for the grace of God go I." Better preparation and better supervision can prevent some of these terrible things, but we can never eliminate the possibility of them entirely.
That said, when we're talking about sexual predation, we're talking about something else. People who feel a need to engage in improper sexual activity -- especially with children or youth, boys or girls -- will by design
gravitate to professions and hobbies that give them access to the objects of their desire. It is more likely, therefore, to find a sexual predator working in a residential home for troubled youth than in, say, a geriatric nursing home. Of course, the predator in the nursing home might have a volunteer position that gives him or her access to the desired population. Anyway, sexual predators will set out to become teachers, coaches, clergy, youth group leaders, Scout leaders, etc. Like Willie Sutton robbing banks "because that's where the money is," people who feel the need to cozy up to certain others for improper reasons will make every effort to establish themselves in positions that give them the access they need. And if they are balked at getting access to one kind of position, they will try another; if they are turned away in one community, they will move to another. They have a need, and that need drives them. They are not stumbling into sin, they are following an inner compass and know where they're going.
Those in charge of clergy credentialing and employment need to screen for such people (which is hard, because they mostly look like everyone else), and when they are discovered must remove them promptly and hold them to account fully. But in the third stage on the road to ruin, we find that some bishops and boards fail to do so. They either mistake the predator who knows what he is doing for the one stumbling into sin and so err on the side of compassion -- often with the mistaken idea that some sort of remediation and a fresh start somewhere else can fix their problem -- or they are too busy protecting the institution (whether we're talking about the church at large, or just the clergy club) to act on what they know. Either way, they obfuscate, cover up, shuffle people around, and just engage in CYA (Cover Your Anatomy). They fail in love not only toward the vulnerable parishioners they were supposed to protect but toward those who sin against them as well; for sooner or later, it is the supervisor's sad duty to say to someone -- perhaps someone much liked and respected, someone all too like us -- "we love you too much to let you get away with that."
But wait: there's more! Once enough offenders are excused or winked at, those same offenders begin to climb through the ranks of the hierarchy. Soon, those making judgments on others are not merely befuddled and anxious institutionalists circling the wagons, but active conspirators giving cover for like-minded predators. Learning to recognize who is a wolf among the sheep leads to the wolves sticking together. Eventually, "everybody knows" what is going on, but those who complain are now demoted or otherwise silenced, and those who are trying to rise in the hierarchy themselves learn to play Sgt. Schultz and "see nothing." At this point, the whole hierarchy is compromised and cannot reform itself; some outside inquisitor will have to clean out the Augean stables, if they are to be cleansed at all.
This is where the American RCC is right now. But those of us in other denominations should not assume that we don't have this problem. Our hierarchies may not be riddled with and covering for sexual predators, but the same kind of thing goes on all the time. The UM hierarchy is full of bishops and boards who are networked together in heretical and subversive ways. No matter what standards of teaching or practice are set by General Conference, these prelates will see that they aren't enforced; indeed, they will conspire to advance those who publicly disobey them. Complaints will not be adjudicated or penalties will not be assigned. Everybody knows what's going on. The institution is being subverted by those who were set over it to protect it.
Anybody can stumble into sin, and such sinners are to be forgiven, but not necessarily allowed to continue in their positions of leadership. Meanwhile, those who have deliberately set out to use their positions to engage in actions contrary to the standards they have mouthed in front of God and Man need to be screened out where possible and dropped where they've slipped through. Befuddled and ineffective leaders who attempt to protect the institution and the clergy club while allowing the rot to set in need to be held to account. And the greasy pedlars of and apologists for heresy and disobedience need to be replaced immediately.