US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Can a priest get you into heaven? What about a lay minister?

Bryan Cones | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

I ran across a curious quote from David Clohessy of the Survivors' Network of Those Abused by Priests: "None of us have been raised from birth to think that a therapist is God’s representative or that a doctor can get me into heaven." Clohessy is talking about professional ethical standards that restrict sexual activity wtih clients, which in his mind should be applied to clergy.

What is interesting, though, is the context, a story published at Religion Dispatches about a case of sexual assault against an adult by a volunteer lay minister in a program not directly affiliated with a parish but seemingly endorsed by the Archdiocese of Denver. Clohessy is talking about a lay minister, not a priest, and seems to be arguing that a diocese must be legally responsible for misconduct of anyone associated with "Catholic" ministry, whether they are employed by the diocese or not.

Think about the implications here: There are any number of Catholic ministries that use the title but are not directly connected with the diocese, though they may operate within its boundaries, as was the case with Cristo y Yo, a charismatic Hispanic group whose leader allegedly raped a female participant. Many are of these groups are lay led and run, and a good number serve the Spanish-speaking community.

The story as told in RD does not paint a flattering picture of the Archdiocese of Denver in its defense; the archdiocese in effect denied that the accused, Juan Carlos Hernandez, had anything to do with the archdiocese, despite the fact that he had operated his ministry in the parish and even occasionally preached. (If the reporting is accurate, it seems that the victim suffered some of the classic re-victimization at many hands as she tried to tell her story.) At the same time there must be some point at which direct liability for the misconduct of a parish member or volunteer doesn't fall on the diocese as a whole.

Clohessy argues, correctly I think, that "It’s tempting, but wrong, to think that abuse by a seminarian is worse than abuse by a lay employee; abuse by a priest is worse than abuse by a seminarian; abuse by a monsignor is worse than abuse by a priest, and on up the ladder." No disagreement here, but I can't help but wonder if there must be some distinction among "ministers"--those trained and employed by a diocese versus those who are self-taught or trained elsewhere or volunteer or what have you. If there isn't some kind of distinction, I don't see why a diocese would ever permit any extra-diocesan groups in parishes at all. The liability risk would be too great.

One piece of work that we must all do, however, is to eliminate in our own minds once and for all this idea that someone doing or claiming to do God's work is somehow better than the rest of us or has better access to God. The victim in this case acknowledged that she missed warning signs of the assault because they came from a spiritual leader she trusted. That's not her fault, but that faith in someone she saw as a church representative left her vulnerable to his assault. Ministers--official or not--or no less vulnerable to sin than the rest of us.