Let us acknowledge that the vast majority of men and women who minister to congregations are honorable, morally centered people. Nevertheless, let us also acknowledge that a disproportionate number of morally unwhole people seem to find their way into ministry. The phenomenon is certainly not exclusive to the Catholic priesthood, despite the intensity of recent media focus. It is endemic.
Some clergy deserve the opportunity to heal their unwholeness. Others are simply not fit for ministry.
And others should sit, if not rot, in jail.
I would still like to believe that no one enters ministry with malevolent intent. Why, then, does the clergy attract so many morally unstable people? A good portion of the answer lays in unmodulated narcissism stemming from conflicts in one's vulnerable youth. The very drive that attracts morally whole people to dedicate their lives to interpreting God's presence to a community is just one fatal millimeter away from an agenda to dominate, manipulate and seek morally corrupt ways to slake an insatiable thirst for approval.
Moral impropriety is not the only way that untempered narcissism can misdirect one's ministry. There are far too many egomaniacal, manipulative clergy who occupy some of our most prestigious pulpits with impunity, even adulation, simply because they have not been caught with their pants down or their hand in the till.
My own years among seminarians and clergy, and my own self-doubts, teach me that one need not be incredibly prescient to recognize the early manifestations of a psyche that is unsuited for ministry or vulnerable to its unhealthy allurements. Counselors, teachers, mentors, even classmates, can usually see it from a mile away. Yet they routinely blind themselves to the disquieting truth, or fail to build into their modus operandi opportunities for intervention and healing, or confuse a student's intellectual prowess or articulateness for the qualities that make a morally whole clergyperson.
Nearly 40 years ago, my classmates and I, and certainly our seminary's instructors, recognized and openly discussed the intellectual genius, but radically psychotic disposition ("a nutcase"), of a fellow seminarian. Yet he was duly ordained, recruited to work with vulnerable youth, rising to the top of the pop chart. And now his name disgraces national headlines for countless allegations of abuse, and all we can say is that "we knew it all along." Shame on him, but immeasurably more, shame on us.
For him, the die obviously was already cast. Yet for so many other seminarians and neophyte clergy, timely intervention, mentoring and an atmosphere that encourages self-scrutiny can modulate unbridled narcissism and redirect it to a ministry of compassion, advocacy and moral rectitude.
Finally, let no one say that the demands of ministry "made" a minister morally unwhole. Perhaps they can take someone predisposed to moral weakness over the edge, in the same way that a trauma can take a person who is predisposed to depression into a sustained clinical depression. Congregants, however, must be vigilant about foisting unconscionable expectations on their minister, guarding their tongues from hypercriticism and warmly validating, if not celebrating, their minister's basic humanity. For even the best of us is vulnerable to ego bruises and callous treatment. But let the demands of ministry not be an acceptable excuse for moral failure.
A minister who morally betrays his flock, particularly its children, is contemptible. That should not cloud the abject tragedy of a talented life gone wrong.
After punishment has been meted out, the time has come not for self-righteousness and schadenfreude but for understanding and circumspection.