Penn State and the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal was back in the news last week. A CNN report put it this way: “The most powerful leaders at Penn State University showed ‘total and consistent disregard’ for child sex abuse victims while covering up the attacks of a longtime sexual predator, according to an internal review into how the school handled a scandal involving its former assistant football coach.” The internal review was conducted by former FBI director Louis Freeh.
Whenever cases like this hit the news, I think it could happen in the Christian church today and many church leaders seem oblivious to a weakness through which it might occur. I’ll explain. Since the Catholic Church child sex abuse scandal involving some priests and church leaders, other denominations and independent churches implemented policies and procedures designed to prevent access to children by pedophiles. The thing that nags me is that the culture of our churches and denominations has not changed at the core. Nepotism and partiality are still deeply embedded, even celebrated, in much of Christian church culture. The sons, daughters, and close friends of church leaders can often track relatively quickly into ministry positions. For example, there are churches in one relatively small community where a family of pastors have served over the course of many years. This family has a very strong presence within the local Christian community. Hypothetically speaking, if one of the pastors runs off the moral rails in an egregious or criminal way, who’s going to call it in to the denomination or the police? Will the church administrative assistant call it in and tarnish their reputation? We like to think people will do the right thing—even if puts their job at risk or makes them persona non grata—to protect others, especially children. As sad as it is, I don’t think we can afford to count on that social contract any more.
I used to think it was enough to have an official policy that a church leader can’t be in a position where they supervise a relative. I’m not so sure any more. Perhaps we need to realize that any form of nepotism is dangerous. It’s dangerous because it is a form of partiality. James 2 is not limited to favoritism of the rich over the poor. James 2 is talking about a condition of our hearts. The condition of our hearts translates to the culture we establish in the ministries where we serve. Because of our sinful nature the human heart loves to receive and bestow partiality, often for superficial or inappropriate reasons. I suspect, though I have no proof, that the culture of Penn State is probably one where it’s not uncommon for family members of employees to get hired and where many on staff have lived side by side with each other in the same community for many years, if not multiple generations. In such an environment a shrewd pedophile could use familiarity and their position in the community to their advantage.
Clearly evil is at work and has targeted our children. Even now it may be targeting the church through our children. If this is true it means denominations and independent churches will need to take a hard look at the culture within the church. I realize that most of the time a little nepotism and partiality doesn’t result in tragic consequences. In fact, you could argue that nepotism and partiality prevents the hiring or placement of unknown people in positions with access to children. I get it. But perhaps the church is entering a season when we need to admit that nepotism and partiality can also blind us to the flaws in people we know and trust. Maybe the time will soon be upon us to purge the church of nepotism and partiality. Such an effort would encounter fierce opposition. Still, 1 Corinthians 14:12 tells us to strive to build up the church. That doesn’t necessarily mean to keep doing things the way we’ve always done it.
An unknown author said, “A fox cannot hide its tail.” The question is: Do we have the courage to see the fox’s tail even when attached to someone close to us?