What does the Catholic sex abuse scandal mean for Protestants?

October 30, 2018

The most recent major manifestation of the widespread Catholic sex abuse scandal occurred in the diocese of Pennsylvania. Investigators discovered that, over decades, numerous priests abused especially young men and that the presiding bishops covered up the accusations against them. There is also the recent open letter from Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, which implicated the Vatican and even the current pope for enabling the predatory sexual behavior of ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick against young seminarians.

Other examples of mass sexual abuse committed by Catholic clergy, again hushed by the hierarchy, have been reported in various countries around the world. The story coming out of the nation of Ireland is particularly heart-rending, for the Roman church in this traditionally Catholic nation has lost so much credibility that the political ground has shifted radically toward secular liberalism.

However, before American Protestants, including Southern Baptists, begin to think this problem does not concern us, we should take time to reconsider our presuppositions. There are numerous factors that, in contrast to the Roman Catholic context, suppress the ability of investigators to get to the bottom of the systemic problem of sexual abuse among Protestants. Immediately coming to mind are three sets of complicating factors that inhibit the gaining of adequate knowledge regarding the extent of the problem of sex abuse in Protestant churches.

The first set of complicating factors concerns the record-keeping. While Roman Catholics have centralized records that have assisted diligent investigators in tracking down the abused, the abusers, and the abettors of abuse, it would be much more difficult to prove these things in a similar size group of Protestant churches, especially among those who hold autonomous congregational polities. Because the damaging sins of some Roman Catholic clergy have been exposed, and similar numbers among Protestants have not been reported, we might presume this means Protestants are relatively guilt-free.

The sex abuse scandal among Roman Catholics should function as a wake-up call for Protestants to consider their own sex abuse problems.

A second set of complicating factors pertains to reporting and indicates this may be far from the reality. Sexual abuse by its nature is often effectively hidden from view. Because of the highly personal even shameful nature of sexuality among religious believers, sexual abuse is grossly underreported: The abused often blame themselves—they feel they were at least in part responsible, and only with hindsight and growth in social wisdom and self-awareness does this delusion begin to fall away. Again, sometimes the abused are simply not given credibility by those to whom they confide the abuse. As a result, the abused may walk away from the church or from considering real faith.

Moreover, church leaders often decide to cover up abuse in order to preserve the reputation of their institutions (or for perhaps for worse reasons). Compounding the problem is that some leaders may believe they are not accountable for their actions in these cases, simply because they could not find a Bible verse explicitly requiring them to act in this particular case in a wise manner.

Finally, it should go without saying, but sexual abusers typically do not seek to expose their own crimes. I personally know of several families, including my own extended family, who have suffered from the problem of predatory sexual grooming and child abuse in the churches, and most such instances will likely never come to public light.

A third set of complicating factors in reporting sexual abuse concerns the nature of our church polity. It is clear from stories that have recently surfaced about Protestant clergy who have sexually abused minors that their crimes were hidden simply by moving away from the church where the activity occurred. Baptists and Pentecostals and Churches of Christ, for instance, generally hold to autonomous congregational polity as a matter of conviction. If these churches do not report sexual abuse crimes to the local police, perhaps out of a misunderstanding regarding the separation of church and state, it is likely that a perpetrator will transfer his “mission field” and continue his horrific crimes elsewhere. Sexual abuse easily becomes serial sexual abuse when the perpetrator changes his address.

We could go on, but I would argue the sex abuse scandal among Roman Catholics should function as a wake-up call for Protestants to consider their own sex abuse problems. Never again should there be a little girl who reports a rape but is summarily dismissed, because people say, “Such a nice guy could never do such a thing,” and, “She has such a vivid imagination.” Never again should there be a pastor who ignores multiple warnings about a rich man grooming a lonely young man with lavish attention and gifts. Never again should there be a youth pastor who tells a young lady that he wants to pray for her, real close, encouraging her to drop her guard and allowing him to engage in inappropriate touching.

The problem we should be concerned about is not that Protestant sexual abuse might become a public scandal and that Protestants might lose public credibility. The problem we should be concerned about is that lives are permanently damaged because of our negligence to report or even willfully cover up sexual abuse. Let us pray and act, that judgment against sex abuse will begin in the Protestant church before God himself decides to restore justice, either in this life or before his throne on the Day of Judgment.

Malcolm B. Yarnell III

Malcolm B. Yarnell III is research professor of Systematic Theology in Fort Worth, Texas, where he enjoys exploring theology with his students. He is the author of three widely-reviewed books, The Formation of Christian Doctrine (B&H Academic, 2007); God the Trinity: Biblical Portraits (B&H Academic, 2016); Royal Priesthood in the English Reformation (Oxford University Press, … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24