A Protestant’s Response to Sex Crimes in the Catholic Church

By Tom Gilson Published on August 17, 2018

For decades now, reports of sexual crimes and cover-up have been popping like hand grenades around the Roman Catholic Church. Those explosions just went nuclear. This week’s Pennsylvania grand jury report reveals how crimes we’d formerly thought were horrific have in fact been far worse than that.

We’re all affected by this. Obviously some (the victims!) bear the pain much more than others. To a lesser degree, though, so does everyone who names the name of Christ. That includes Protestants, of which I am one. It may not be my church, but it’s still Church, and I’m stunned. That’s just for starters, though.


I am so very, very grieved. Grieved first of all for the victims, some of whom suffered mistreatment criminal beyond all imagining. I can’t even begin to process what it must be like for them.

And I’m grieved for so many others who are bound to turn their backs on God over this. Years ago, when I was an HR director with Campus Crusade for Christ, I was dealing with a staff member who’d just torpedoed a high-level, high-visibility ministry through his sin of adultery. Our president, Bill Bright, could have been irate over it. He’d nurtured that outreach personally for years. What he said to me instead, proved to be a lifelong lesson: “I am so grieved for how this will damage the progress of the gospel.” It’s the right first response, I believe.

I am so grieved for how this will damage the progress of the gospel.

We can obviously expect many to leave the Catholic Church over this. Many, both inside and outside Catholicism, will give up on God completely. I don’t know how to express the depth of my sadness over this.


But that doesn’t mean there’s no room for outrage. The crimes the grand jury reported are beyond belief. They’re evil. Horrific. Absolutely, unremittingly outrageous. Priests abused their religious authority to commit shockingly awful sex crimes against trusting youth. Bishops did their best to keep it all under wraps, dodging PR problems, outrunning statutes of limitations, even manipulating lawmakers into keeping those statutes short. For years and years they supported priests in their ongoing crimes.

John Zmirak tells the story; I need not repeat it. Shortness of breath comes on when I just think about it. I have no words to express how wrong this is, in so many ways, on so many levels. 


But then there is my concern for the rest of Christianity. This scandal started with the popping of grenades in the Catholic Church. Disturbingly similar explosions are going off in the Protestant world now. Does this signal the same kind of crisis hiding there, too?

My read on it is both “yes” and “no.” Relatively few Protestant churches — and very few evangelical ones — have the same structures which enabled this to spread so far and wide as in the Catholic Church, where bishops conspired with priests to keep things wrapped up in the dark. Some mainline denominations are exceptions to that rule, of course, and there exist strong hints (if not much more than that) of systemic violations among the Sovereign Grace Church network.

For the most part, though, just as Protestant churches are more independent than Catholic churches, sexual abuse problems in Protestantism are more likely to be disconnected, isolated instances rather than denominational issues. Such was the case when my own kids’ youth pastor was caught and convicted of sex crimes against teenage girls.

We’re Not Prepared for This

Whether denominational or local, however, it’s happened and it continues to happen. So Protestants are at risk, with leaders like Bill Hybels and Andy Savage falling into sin (to varying degrees of severity). There are signs pointing toward crisis brewing on our side of the Church, too. It may be just a matter of time. And we’re not prepared for it.

Protestant structures typically lack the very thing that should have protected the Catholics — strong accountability. Every pastor should have someone to whom he answers for his time and his relationships. That’s triply true for those who work with youth. My experience shows this isn’t always the case.

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Meanwhile Protestant culture has too often been guilty of supporting sin, covering it up in the name of reputation and even (bizarrely) the “honor of Christ’s name.” And did I say “bizarre”? Denhollander says some churches actually assert “doctrines” that rationalize handling sex crimes in private, on their own, without involving police.

This is beyond foolish, even for their reputations, not to mention their integrity before God. The pastor’s sin in my own church years ago produced severe damage on many levels. But still the community continued to view the rest of the church as a place of integrity. Why? Because we handled it openly, cooperating with authorities the whole way.


Crimes like these, widespread and systemic as they are, far exceed any of our abilities to solve completely. Only God can do it. So I pray. I ask you to join me and many others as we pray for the Catholic Church. Pray for her priests and bishops to do the right thing now.

I pray, too, for the authorities who are responding to the Church’s crimes.

I pray for my Protestant brothers and sisters, that we will do the right thing to stop and to prevent any abuse going on in our own ranks.

I pray for the victims, that God would bring them healing, including the supernatural grace of forgiveness.

I pray for the watching world, that they would still know that there is a loving, holy, good God in heaven who will execute justice and who still offers them eternal life in Christ.

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