One of the most stark and terrifying verses in all of the world’s religions is attributed to Jesus not once, nor twice, but three times identically in three different gospels:

“Whoever will cause one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble, it would be better for him if he were thrown into the sea with a millstone hung around his neck, and that he should be sunk into the depths of the sea.”

This is not gentle Jesus, meek and mild. It is not even the man we know who overturns in flashing anger the tables of those who undertake unfair financial practices in the ancient temple at Jerusalem. It is one of the “hard sayings” of Jesus, and one does not often hear a sermon on it. But the words have beat on my own heart rather directly for years, and in many hours during the ongoing release of reports of the abuse of children and seminarians by Roman Catholic clergy. The language of these reports is too horrible to repeat. One can read about it easily in other places. I shall not link to it.

I have never been a Roman Catholic, and there is something somehow unclean about a member of one Christian communion calling attention to sin—however rank—in another Christian community. I do not know of any church here on Earth with a single stone to throw in this connection; the problem is not a Roman Catholic one. The proper shared response to the horror seems to be some as-yet-unattained ecumenical mixture a purifying repentance to stem the wrath of God, a shared vigilance, lament, solidarity, therapeutic attention, effort toward the amendment of outdated laws on the subject, and a clarity of common teaching and standards with respect to safeguarding. These things emerge as tasks for all of us, no matter which of the many mansions we inhabit—Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Anabaptist, Independent, Baptist, Moravian, and in any other church. In isolation from one another, we will not lift ourselves out of the damage caused by these systems of behavior, nor without the gift of the Holy Spirit, nor without the withering of some vines that, it is promised, will be cast into the fire.

And yet—and yet—the Roman Catholic Church claims an immense authority and dignity in Christian history. There are at least 1.3 billion persons who follow its teaching, undertaking world-changing ministries of care for the poor, the sick and dying; educating the young; preparing communities of mutual service and support in the ways that make the most sense to them. The Roman Church is in some sense the elder sibling of the rest of us, and it is reasonable to look for a word of teaching, an example of conduct, a starting-point even from which to begin an examination of the many cultures of abuse it has harbored on a large scale. And that church itself perpetuates universally in all of the world’s languages something Jesus said three times:

“Whoever will cause one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble, it would be better for him if he were thrown into the sea with a millstone hung around his neck, and that he should be sunk into the depths of the sea.”

How does one “hold this in tension,” as the academic says, with the current teaching of most churches regarding the immorality of capital punishment? This strange Jesus holds up not just death but execution as the “better” thing for someone who has ever harmed a child. Millstones are immense, heavy—the grinding mechanism used to turn wheat into flour. They are impossible for one person to lift alone, let alone to swim with one attached to his neck. The image is as grotesque as the crimes it is meant to punish.

I suspect we need look not much farther than Bethlehem of Judea for a clue. This Lord was born as a baby and cried in a cratch. His own life was threatened from its very beginning not just by filth and contagion, but by persons who believed in their own authority to control religion by the destruction of the Little Family. The good tidings of great joy could not have been preached if Mary and Joseph had been severed from the love of their baby son. And if this Jesus grew to stretch out his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross, that all the world might come within his saving embrace, his identification with the suffering this entailed has to have somehow been contained within his first cries, as well as the pierced-knowing heart of his mother.

There are mysteries here:

“Whatsoever you do to the least of my children, that you do to me.”

“Unless you receive the kingdom of God as a little child, you cannot enter it.”

“Let the children come to me, and hinder them not.”

“How often would I have gathered you to my breast as a mother hen her chicks?”

In some clear way, then, the enormity of the clerical abuse scandals in our churches is a direct assault on the holy child himself, a manifold increase of the sufferings he bore in order to undo the sting and power of death—and God has put on this suffering servant the iniquity of us all.

As we begin together to turn corners away from the revelation of what has been (and there have sometimes in recent years seemed to be new things under the sun, not least in Ireland and Newfoundland and Pennsylvania), we need a return to the acknowledgement of the responsibilities of the older toward the younger, whether within or without the Church. They are welcome and nourishment, clothing, shelter, warmth, affection, teaching, steady example, the teaching of safe rules of conduct at each age, the opening of each child’s capacities to learn, discover, create, play, grow. We have a religion in which the presence of a God-boy can lead the way here—manfully, certainly, his strength made perfect in every weakness:

This little babe so few days old
Is come to rifle Satan’s fold;
All hell doth at his presence quake,
Though he himself for cold doth shake;
For in this weak unarmed wise
The gates of hell he will surprise.

With tears he fights and wins the field,
His naked breast stands for a shield;
His battering shot are babish cries,
His arrows looks of weeping eyes,
His martial ensigns cold and need,
And feeble flesh his warrior’s steed.

His camp is builded in a stall,
His bulwark but a broken wall,
The crib his trench, haystalks his stakes,
Of shepherds he his muster makes;
And thus, as sure his foe to wound,
The angels’ trumps alarum sound!

My soul with Christ join thou in fight;
Stick to the tents that he hath pight.
Within his crib is surest ward;
This little babe will be thy guard.
If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy,
Then flit not from this heav’nly boy!