Electric landscape
Originally uploaded by Lynn Park

I keep thinking about an article I read recently in the San Francisco Chronicle: “Epis-copal Church comes under fire for parolee priest: Murderer who was ordained has been suspended for sexual misconduct with parishioner” (by Matthai Kuruvila, B-1, 9, Friday, July 18, 2008).

“Sexual misconduct with parishioner”: I think about how familiar these words are, and how familiar these issues are and how close to home they come.

A former president of my own seminary in another denomination resigned because of sexual impropriety: adultery while being pastor of the church he served before coming to the seminary, adultery that continued after he came to the seminary. This man saw nothing inappropriate in his being a moral arbiter of gay and lesbian students seeking ordination—and was quite proud of having written a book on manners that sold well.

A seminary classmate brought sexual abuse charges against the pastor of her home church, who counseled her after the death of her husband and shepherded her on her journey to seminary. He didn’t rape her, and it was still sexual abuse. After he got his obligatory slap on the wrist from the denomination, many people saw her as a nuisance who should shut up and go away, when she kept demanding real help to put her life back together again.

At a conference I met a psychiatrist who had lost his license for sleeping with a patient, “for her own good.” He could not see that he had done anything wrong. He didn’t rape her, but I doubt that she could call him between sessions and say, “Honey, I’m feeling horny. Let’s get it on.” When I met him, he had lost everything but what he still saw as his innocence.

It’s been said that “a stiff dick has no conscience.” What’s the comparable witticism, unfunny as it can be, for a woman? While I was a seminary intern I was powerfully attracted to a member of the congregation where I was working, and it was grace that kept me from making a grievous error. It was probably grace that let me get together with this man later and find out for myself it was a mistake—but not for moral, ecclesiastical reasons.

Any of these stories warrants lengthy reflection. Every one of them stirs the pot as I keep going back to the Chronicle story. As I try to see what’s roiling beneath the surface, the first thing I see is the difficulty of even touching on them. The reticence I feel to broach the subject of sexual abuse—victims and perpetrators—has to do with issues of privacy and with issues of so-called “politeness.” Then there’s the old voice that says, “Don’t. Just leave well enough alone. Nice people don’t talk about bad sex.”

This prohibition likely stems in part from reluctance to face the dark numen that can be part of sexuality bereft of the ethical and the kind, the forthright and the mutual. It’s hard to talk about the possibility that we might falter, that someone we’ve looked up to has faltered. And it’s also hard to admit that our best-intentioned efforts may not prevent or easily ameliorate the grievous effects of sexual abuse by those in positions of power. Here I’ve reflected on situations involving clergy and a physician—but we don’t have to be clergy or physicians ourselves to hear troubling echoes that ring true more than we may like to admit, even to ourselves.

I think that’s enough for now.

Note: The photograph “Electric Landscape” appears in my photostream at Flickr.com

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