A brutal grand jury report on clergy abuse of minors in Pennsylvania was published last week. It details a mass cover-up of sexual abuse of minors by more than three hundred priests in Pennsylvania, and outlines the procedures churches employed to protect predatory priests and conceal sexual abuse.
Clergy used their positions to rape and molest and torture little ones in the name of Jesus—and then retired quietly. Or, they were shuffled to another diocese. Or their victims were hushed and discredited. Few of these men will ever answer for their crimes.
Many of these abusers died with good reputations. For years, they’ve been celebrated as righteous representatives of God. What could be more horrifying? Unnamed, silenced victims suffered alone while thousands unknowingly attended the funerals of predators and liars. Some of the victims have committed suicide, and many lives were ruined.
This is what it means to profane the name of God. This is what it means to steal, kill, and destroy.
Prayer doesn’t rise easily to our lips in times of crisis. Words stick in our throats. We fumble for answers, and come up empty. How can we give flesh to grief, to faith-shifting disappointment? We want to say something—a prophetic word of lament, of justice, of someday-healing—and we want to say it well. But sometimes, our rage is too big and our sadness too deep.
Last week was one of those moments for me. My rage was big and my sadness was deep and unrelenting. Words failed me.
Many believers are devastated by what was uncovered in Pennsylvania, and they’re right to feel that way. Neither Catholics nor Protestants can escape the shadow of abuse in the church. We all have much to answer for and much work to do. And if the church must lose face before the world so that justice can be done, then so be it.
We need to purify our churches of the authoritarian theology and patriarchal practices that attract and enable abusers. We need women in leadership—as pastors/priests and in oversight positions such as elder. We need to build unbending systems of accountability. We must pledge to make no exceptions—for our friends or for our reputations. We need to run swift and open-armed toward transparency.
We need to do something right now. But we also need fierce, justice-thirsty prayer. Prayer has power to heal and convict and topple and unify. It can harden resolve, invite to resistance, inspire change, and feed restoration. Or it can hurt—deeply. It can gloss over pain with gimmick and platitude, with simplistic answers and cheap, surface grace.
How and what we pray for matters. Because there are women and children survivors in our churches, quietly listening and wondering if maybe this time will be different. Will we name their pain? Will we see them? Will we side with them without question, without qualification, and without hesitation?
So how then should we pray for the church in light of what happened in Pennsylvania?
1. Pray with humility.
I’ve heard a few Protestant folks point the finger of accusation toward the Catholic Church, as if to say that Protestants never enable pastoral abuse or seek to cover it up. We have a tendency to compare ourselves to “those really bad folks over there,” and then let ourselves off the hook if we perceive them to be worse offenders. Further, it allows us to criticize others without also asking how our own theology enables abuse and injustice. So, after Pennsylvania, we should pray with and for humility:
God of Clarity,
show us where our theology hurts and breaks
instead of mends and builds.
Where there is defensiveness, pride, and moral superiority,
let there be spiritual analysis, receptiveness to critique,
and admission of failure, apathy, and oversight.
We know we’re not above abuse and injustice.
We repent of our arrogance.
We’re sorry for pointing fingers
instead of looking to our own churches and our own hearts.
We recognize that we too have work to do.
Awaken us to any injustice we’ve overlooked or erased.
Prepare us to lose face—gladly—so that justice can be done.
2. Pray with confidence in God’s position.
God makes it very clear in Scripture. God is with the least of these and God hates abuse. So when we pray after Pennsylvania, we should do so with clarity. We should not be ambiguous in allying ourselves with survivors or in our condemnation of the abuse and the patriarchal theology that often feeds it. We shouldn’t shy away from stating God’s bold position as ours.
God of Justice,
These priests have worn your name, used your sanctuary, and twisted your Word
to steal, kill, and destroy.
We lament the lie that was their witness,
and the damage done by their toxic testimony before the world.
We pray that justice will be done,
that those overlooked will be seen
and those falsely glorified as faithful men
will face your justice and be revealed as pretenders.
We know that where humans favor power and hierarchy,
you have always chosen vulnerability
and a home on the margins with the unseen.
Empower us to live like you did on earth.
Make us relentless pursuers of reckoning and restoration.
Pray for systemic, practical change and radical change-makers.
Prayer is all well and good, but words can only take us so far. We also have work to do. We need to begin the work of uprooting and rebuilding, and we need to pray for those who are called to that work.
We need to pray for the organizations, bloggers, writers, activists, theologians, pastors, lay leaders, and survivors (especially women and folks of color) leading the reformation. Folks like Mimi Haddad (president of CBE International), Scot McKnight, and Ashley Easter (founder of the Courage Conference) and organizations like CBE International have been sounding the alarm on patriarchal theology and church abuse for many years. After Pennsylvania, we should permanently add these radical change-makers to our prayer lists.
God of Action,
Thank you for the prophets who shouted that there were wolves among your flock,
for those who work ceaselessly to expose abusers
and strip away the masks, robes, and pulpits
they hide behind.
Forgive us for calling them dramatic,
for accusing them of maligning the church,
for labelling them a threat to unity,
for believing the problem wasn’t as bad as they said.
Your church has made bad choices:
Reputation over restoration
Power over people
Control over confession
Hierarchy over humility
Theology over transparency.
We should’ve listened to the prophets,
the radical change-makers,
the brave new way-criers.
Thank you for empowering them to never give up,
to fight on when we preferred to turn away.
Thank you for opening our eyes to injustice,
to the rending that comes before restoration.
Strengthen those on the spiritual front-lines,
protect the women who bring a Word against patriarchy and violence,
fortify those speaking against broken theology and warped church practice.
Make us instruments of your justice and freedom.
Let your wind flow through us to make a healing sound.
We have been lost, but we are not lost to you.
Ready us for what’s coming, for the painful unveiling,
the uncomfortable truth-telling.
And then do what you do best: make all things new.
We shouldn’t hide our anguish, our anger, our disbelief when we pray. Instead, we should share it. We should cry out to God with one voice against injustice, against abuse, against hierarchy, against pride, against apathy, against indecisiveness. For too long, the church has sought to hide its failures rather than admit it isn’t perfect. As Christians, we must forge a new way. And we can start with how we pray.