After generations of respect, Christian clergy are being downgraded as trustworthy figures in society. This makes sense as a decline in church membership shifts attention to other institutions. I wonder, however, how much recent scandals have affected this depreciation.

Many churches have suffered from the disclosure of clerical sexual abuses. Celibacy certainly plays a role in some of these cases, but married ministers also have been found guilty of such crimes. There are many causes of both the abuse and its role in weakening trust in this profession.

First we must recognize the intensity of sexual desire and the danger of its suppression. Human history and literature are dominated by stories of sexual happiness and distress. It has affected everything from politics to poetry. The regulation of sexual activity has consumed much of society’s efforts to maintain social order and family structure. Religious institutions have played a large role in promoting and delineating each society’s norms.

In addition, the role of clergy as counselors and advisors has been an important part of health care for centuries. Before clinical psychology was developed, clergy provided help and consolation to people in emotional distress. This also made them powerful figures to susceptible petitioners and some clergy took advantage of that power.

The number of clearly criminal clergy is small statistically, but they were hidden for so long that awareness today seems especially shocking. Hiding problems rarely helps the situation, as bishops and church supervisors are belatedly discovering. Much evil is done with good intentions.

Another factor today is the declining number of young people training for the role of priest or minister. The finances, as well as the complexities of the position, are discouraging otherwise inspired candidates. Some of this decline in numbers might be the result of the publicity around sexual crimes. It could also be a cause as fewer clergy are available to serve parishes, so questionable personnel are kept in service.

All of this is sad given the centuries of laudable leadership and care that many clergy have provided. One does not have to agree with all that they have said and done to recognize that they have helped millions of people live better lives.

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