The reports these past few weeks regarding sexual abuse by Church officials and the culture of cover-up to protect the Church has hit many of us hard as we try to imagine the pain and suffering that victims and their families have experienced. I am cautious to call for prayers and outreach for the people whose lives have been so hurt, because I feel as if it seems to be such a limited response. Is this really all we can do?
While looking for appropriate responses, I am also compelled to say, “Brace yourself, there is probably more that will come out.” As we continue to explore the past, we will find additional examples of sin and the wreckage that it leaves in its wake. As we do that, the feelings of disgust, disbelief, resentment, discouragement, anger, and more will continue to come in waves, possibly challenging us to complete disillusionment. We want to believe in Jesus, but it can be hard when all we see are his hypocritical followers. Understanding that these feelings are real and honest is important for us so that we can support one another, and call out to Christ in our need, looking to the only One who can heal.
Part of me wants to ask, “Do we really need to dig up the past like this?” Yes we do! That very process is necessary for those who have suffered to have the possibility for some recovery. It is also that process that will further galvanize our resolve to not remain silent for fear of scandal, but rather to speak up to prevent further abuse, to prevent further sin. While I have no ready answers for how we are to respond, I am hopeful to continue to address this in the weeks ahead. My prayer through these weeks has helped me to see some of my own brokenness – where sin has kept me from being a more faithful witness of Christ in the Church. While in no way an indictment of you, I share some of this as a reflection on the state of sin and brokenness in our world that is evident so painfully in our Church today.
It seems that draping sexual abuse in all its forms as “sin” may be to cloak the issue in religious terms that have less and less impact in our culture today. However, it is that very dynamic that I believe has created the environment that leads to abuse. Certainly many professionals can and will point to the underlying causes of sexual abuse – all of which are valid and need to be addressed. Nevertheless, as people of faith we realize that we live in a broken world and all of the therapeutic approaches on the planet will not save us from the harm we can and will inflict on each other and ourselves unless they are embraced with God’s grace. What causes me and you to sin is the same evil that causes priests, doctors, teachers, parents, and all other abusers to do the same and what causes leaders who should know better (cardinals, bishops, university presidents, coaches, etc.) to cover it up. In most cases, the evil that causes it is the slow yet persistent lie that we tell ourselves over time: it is not a sin!
If we think that simply by ordination one can avoid the perils of sin in all its forms, then we do not understand the human person. St. Paul speaks to this broken human reality frequently in his letters, and his place as an “Apostle” has been celebrated for over two millennia. If we think that celibacy is the culprit, then we similarly do not understand the human person. Psychological professionals have noted for some time that sexual abuse is more about power than about sexuality, with its frequency no more prevalent among celibate clergy than any other sexually active demographic group. If we think that leadership in the Church guarantees choices that are in the best interest of the Church, then we likewise misunderstand the human person. Church and world history are littered with the carnage of sinful choices made by those who have been empowered to protect and defend others, especially the most vulnerable.
This sobering reality calls for deeper reflection and soul searching among us all. How are all of us complicit in creating an environment where we fail to call sin what it is? How are all of us complicit in creating an environment where we do not hold each other accountable in open, honest, mature, and transparent ways? This is in no way a re-direct of the attention away from Church officials. There definitely needs to be a change in our Church culture that worries less about perception and more about proclaiming the truth of the Gospel. Clergy and religious who hold unique places in the Church need to see that we hold them with the laity, not above the laity, thereby empowering a greater spirit of transparent interdependence. The sins of covering-up and arrogant clericalism have roots that go much further than this crisis. These sins cry out for repentance and conversion.
Yet, as I look out over the Catholic Church of over 1 billion people, I am the only one over whom I can directly make any difference. I can yell and rebuke my brother priests (and I have) who have carried out these heinous acts and I can rant about bishops and cardinals (and I have) who did little to nothing except perpetuate the problem. In doing so, I have done little to change the heart of the issue – sin. And for that reality of mine, I can only ask God’s and your forgiveness and pray for the grace of Christ to heal where I have hurt others as well as my own brokenness. I invite you, in the feelings of disillusionment, betrayal and bewilderment to look not at me or at the Church, but look through me and through the Church to see Jesus, for only He can comfort, heal and rebuild.
I have hope in the Church because I have hope in Christ. As discouraged as I’m sure you are (and I know I am), there is nothing that can overcome the grace of Christ’s saving act on the cross: no shame, no sin, no hurt, no cover-up. As harsh as this must be for the victims and their families, Christ still reigns over their wounds and calls them to new life in Him. May our commitment to the embrace of the grace of the Holy Spirit to renew us and our commitment to conversion of heart, mind and body be the witness that not only transforms our Church, but be the hope of healing that will lead those who have been disillusioned to see resurrected life in the Church Jesus came to establish.
I know that these simple words of mine are so miniscule in their ability to make a difference. St. Francis of Assisi lived at another time when the Church was in need of renewal, and the simple lifestyle of the Poor Man of Assisi started a movement of change that 800 years later is still alive and well. I look to Francis for inspiration in this time of trial and do what he did – look at the cross of San Damiano and hear God’s voice telling him to repair the Church that had fallen into ruin. May this column be a first step in helping to repair some of what may be ruined in your faith as you reflect on this scandal.
If you want to discuss this with me or any of the DCC staff in any way, feel free to reach out. We believe that since so many of us experience this in unique ways, that the best way to work with you is one-on-one, much the way Jesus’ healings always took place in personal encounters. There are additional resources to which we can direct you as well. If you have experienced any form of abuse, please contact the police, university officials, and those who can help you to heal. May Mary, who stood watching Jesus on the pain of the cross, intercede for her Son’s Church that is similarly in pain, and aid all those who have been marred by the scourge of the sin of sexual abuse.
firstname.lastname@example.org c. 919-316-8763 / w. 919-684-1882
Follow me on Twitter @TheDukePriest