On Clergy Discipline

I was recently involved in a discussion regarding the discipline of clergy who have, as they say, gone off the reservation.  I take a rather hard stand on this as I believe that those of us who have been blessed with Sacred Holy Orders need to be held to a higher standard.  I also believe in mercy, compassion, and healing but that can be done without wearing the collar of the cassock of the ordained clergy.  If you “fall” then that has to come with a consequence.  For far too long clergy have been causing scandal in the Church with their actions and it is high time that this comes to an end.

I also take a hard stand against those who cover this up.  As most of you who read these pages know, I am a convert to Orthodoxy coming from the Roman Catholic tradition.  I began seminary the same year that the clergy sex abuse scandal broke in the Archdiocese of Boston.  I lived through some pretty bad times in seminary that still haunt me to this day.  This of course does not compare to the absolute horror of those who were victimized by the clergy and in fact does not compare at all.  For me, standing on the sidelines watching, the victims were victimized multiple times, by the accused priest and then by the institution of the Church.  To watch a senior hierarch on TV talk about a “Chron” file and delay tactics was just sickening.  As with the offending clergy, the people involved in a cover up or attempted cover up need to go as well.  There is no place in the church, any church, for this kind of behavior.

I came across an essay written by Fr. Thomas Hopko on the topic of the discipline of the clergy and I feel it is helpful to us in putting in perspective the serious office that we clergy have been given.  Never forget that we will be held accountable on the day of judgment for all of our actions involving not only our own sins, but in how we lead the people that we have been entrusted with.

Being called from the people to serve the people in the ranks of the ordained clergy is a sacred responsibility and those who chose, for whatever reason, to treat that responsibility with such disregard need to no longer be able to call themselves clergy.

Excerpt from a September 2011 letter of Fr Thomas Hopko, “Discipline of Clergy Accused of Serious Crime: Applying Church Canons Today”: (Emphasis is mine)

Fr. Thomas Hopko

A clergyman guilty of a transgression and/or crime who genuinely repents may be allowed to continue in Communion. He may, with true repentance, be blessed to partake of the Holy Mysteries under the conditions required of all faithful communicants. However, every effort must be made to see that the guilty man’s repentance is genuine and long-lasting. Thus there will always have to be a time during which the guilty clergyman refrains from partaking of the Holy Mysteries as a normal part of his process of repenting. How long this time is, and what is required of the guilty clergyman during this time to prove the genuineness of his repentance, is decided by the responsible bishop (with the knowledge and approval of the Synod), or the Synod as a whole.

Under no circumstances whatsoever, however, may a guilty clergyman whose sin and/or crime would preclude him from being ordained in the first place, or to remain among the active clergy if he is already ordained, be allowed ever again to serve at the Holy Altar or to perform any episcopal, presbyteral or diaconal duties. Clergy sin and crime is a serious matter, and it must be treated seriously. The integrity of the Church, the success of the Church’s mission and witness, and the respectful treatment of the Church by its own members and those outside it demands this, for nothing so undermines the Church’s image in the world and trivializes its divine message than clergymen convicted of transgressions and crimes being allowed to continue in their ministries.

An essential element in the guilty clergyman’s genuine repentance is his voluntary cessation of all clerical functions. He may perhaps be permitted to “stand among the clergy” when partaking of the Holy Mysteries, but under no circumstances whatsoever may he lead, celebrate, serve or assist in Divine Services according to the office to which he was ordained. Although it may be argued that “oikonomia” in this matter under very exceptional circumstances may be applied for the salvation of souls (other people’s souls, not the soul of the guilty clergyman), it is virtually impossible to imagine what these circumstances could possibly be.

The application of such a rule, never to be violated or dispensed with for any reason, is not excessive punishment. In fact, it is not “punishment” at all. It is rather the appropriate procedure to protect the Church and all its faithful members from confusion, offense, accusation and scandal. The repenting clergyman himself should insist upon this action, and accept it as an unambiguous sign of his genuine repentance, and of his gratitude for the “oikonomic” blessing to continue as a Communicant of the Holy Mysteries because of his repentance, and of his unqualified love for the Church. His failure to do so proves that he does not truly repent for his sin and cares nothing for the well-being of the Church, the success of its mission and the salvation of the souls for whom the Church exists. Indeed, no clergyman – bishop, presbyter or deacon – is so necessary to the Church’s life and work that he has to keep functioning in office after having been proven guilty of an act, or many acts, that would preclude his ordination in the first place. The repentant clergyman’s contribution to the Church’s well-being and the salvation of souls, beginning with his own, is exactly his cessation, not continuation, of ordained service.

A repentant clergyman may, perhaps, be blessed to continue wearing clerical dress, especially at church services, after being reinstated to Communion in the Holy Mysteries. But under no circumstances may he be permitted to wear the sacred vestments of his office since he is no longer an active servant. He is, on the contrary, a penitent clergyman. Once again, this is not a punishment. It is an appropriate action for the sake of the Church’s integrity, well-being and peace.

I don’t believe that quibbling over the nuances of various terms for cessation of service — suspension, deposition, unfrocking, etc. – is helpful. Indeed, I believe that it should be avoided because it obfuscates rather than clarifies. It seems to me that basically only two actions are in order. One is that the transgressing clergyman is excommunicated for failure to repent. The other is that he may be blessed to receive Holy Communion after properly repenting, but never again to function in office because of his genuine repentance and sincere love for Christ and the Church.

The argument that a clergyman who has sinned in a way that precludes his serving may be reinstated in office by “pastoral oikonomia” as an expression of God’s mercy to sinners is unacceptable. Indeed, it is simply wrong and foolish. God’s forgiveness, mercy and compassion have to do with Church membership and Communion in the Holy Mysteries. They have nothing to do with ordination and ordained ministry. A man is not ordained, or allowed to continue in active ordained ministry, as a sign of God’s forgiveness of sins, or His mercy and compassion toward sinners. Nor is the guilty man’s repentance demonstrated by his continuing to serve in his ordained ministry. In fact, as we emphasized, just the opposite is true.

To repeat this point another way, mercy and compassion are certainly in order in all circumstances. In the case of a “fallen clergyman”, mercy and compassion are demonstrated in two ways. In regard to the guilty clergyman they are demonstrated by permitting him, after deep and serious repentance, to participate in the Holy Mysteries. In regard to the whole body of the faithful, they are demonstrated by not subjecting the Church’s members to confusion, scandal and a necessity to explain why a clergyman guilty of egregious transgression and/or crime is still serving at the Holy Altar and exercising clerical duties.

Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko
Church New Year 2011



  1. everything,at some point,must be brought to the light…we can bring it out ourselves and correct it,or it can snow ball,come out in public,then we no longer have control to correct it and the world around us scandalizes and judges not only use,but our entire institution.

  2. Fr. Peter,
    Your statements exemplify healthy patriarchy. Healthy patriarchy protects, prevents, heals, nurtures, educates and saves as coworkers with our Lord. Everything will come to the light. Far better to reveal the darkness now than later. For the sake of both the abused and abuser let us provide tender healing for the former and supportive repentance for the latter. Our “sanctification” while facts are swept under the rug favors salacious souls on a slippery surface. Let us see more men speak out and work to heal the wounds perpetrated on the innocent. Likewise let us quickly hold the perpetrators accountable.

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