Thoughts on fallen church leaders

Photo: Adapted by Saskia Rowley from Followtheflow
Published June 7, 2022

I have a picture on my wall of one of my heroes of the faith—Jean Vanier. Earlier in my life, he, along with Henri Nouwen, helped me personally through some very difficult spiritual challenges.

Several years ago, after his death, we learned that Vanier had sexually abused several of his trusting female devotees. My partner Marlene and I were shocked, angered and dismayed by this news and she advised me to remove his picture.

It has been very difficult for me to do that, even though Marlene has just cause for thinking as she does. I continue to struggle with the problem of how a person who did such good could have committed this very real evil, and the matter has not yet been resolved.

Recently, we read the sad news about Mark MacDonald, former national Indigenous Anglican archbishop, who resigned after being confronted with sexual misconduct allegations which he acknowledged. (For privacy reasons, the church is not releasing details about the allegations against MacDonald, other than to say they are not criminal in nature.)

The struggles I had over Vanier, my fallen hero, now affect me all over again. At this point I have come to realize that there is no way we in the church can avoid coming to terms with these tragedies among us.

A key term to be thinking about is accountability. To be accountable to Jesus and the truth, Christians need to establish both the church structures and procedures to protect vulnerable people from sexual abuse.

It would appear that many of our communities are seeking to do just that. The Anglican Church of Canada has been working to improve how it handles abuse, and for good reason: sexual abuse must be confronted everywhere in society and church, and especially not denied or ignored in our Christian communities.

One of the greatest threats to accountability is the culture of clericalism that pervades our life together. We defer too much to church leaders. Secret sins lurk in all of us, but clericalism makes this a particular problem for spiritual leaders upon whom people invest their trust.

We have, by tradition, been raised in environments where church leaders are held in special regard because of the ministry they perform and the offices they hold. By association, church structures have traditionally been held sacrosanct. We need to trust our pastors, but there are times when that trust can be misplaced. It is apparent that boundaries are developing within many of our ecclesial organizations to assure there is accountability, but they must constantly be tested and assessed.

A major complaint of many who have revealed sexual abuse is that they were not taken seriously. Some who have been too trusting of our church leaders have not been believed. The Anglican Journal has helped give voice to some who say they have not been heard. May this continue!

Too often, religious institutions and their leaders have been put ahead of people. We have reached a point when untrustworthy clericalism must be stopped and all complaints heard.

If we care about the long-term reputation of the church and of ourselves as Christians we must work through these painful periods of personal and institutional soul-searching.

For me that means compassion to those who have suffered as a result of Mark MacDonald’s inappropriate behaviour. I pray for his wife and family to support efforts that would prevent him from repeating what he has done.

I have come to see that Vanier picture on my wall not as an endorsement of his behaviour but as a continuing reminder of the need for truth, healing and reconciliation. That applies to all of us.


  • Wayne Holst

    Wayne A. Holst was a Lutheran pastor (ELCIC) for twenty-five years; he taught religion and culture at the University of Calgary for a quarter century and, for 15 years, he has coordinated adult spiritual development at St. David’s United Church, Calgary.

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