Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Clergy Sexual Abuse in the Church: Wound of Forgiveness

Recently I read an essay on clergy sexual abuse in which the phrase “a desire to see the church community healed of its hidden wound” jumped off the page and into my heart. After I said ouch I asked what that wound might be. The first thing that came to mind was forgiveness.

The article,
“Spiritual Direction with Women after Sexual Abuse by Clergy” by Spiritual Director Trish McBride, appeared in the March 2010 issue of Presence: International Journal for Spiritual Direction. You can read it with the help of google, the new name for God. It is well informed and and clear that statistics in the U.S. and other countries indicate the problem to be “an occupational hazard that exists not just in the wilds of Africa.”

The article referenced two 2002 letters to the editor of a church newsletter. Both letters referred to a case in which sexual abuse survivors had made accusations to the Church against the pastor of the church, Father X.

First, the response letter, because the phrase that caught my attention appeared in that letter, the author of which on behalf of the Susanna group said that complainants to the Catholic Church about sexual assault/abuse by clergy and religious "usually act from a passion to stop the same thing happening to anyone else, and , if they care, from a desire to see the church community healed of its hidden wound."


Now, the letter to which the group responded. In it the writer raised objections to accusations of sexual abuse against Father X
suggesting that the accusers lacked proper maturity, integrity, wisdom and compassion especially since the abuse happened seventeen years ago. The letter writer cited the New Testament phrase from John 8 “let who is without sin cast the first stone.” It further implied that the wounded ones should forgive as they have been forgiven.

This letter made me furious. Christian? Maturity? Whose? The responding letter made me cry.

All this got me going on forgiveness. Forgiveness stands at the center of the Christian gospel. It regularly gets misused, its healing power abused. Let me count the abuses: overuse, superficial (sinful) application, judgmental use and globalizing as above, clichĂ©d cover-ups like “forgive and forget,” hasty use without process, thoughtless sloganeering using biblical quotes out of context as above, and forgiveness used in the service of institutional protectionism to dismiss or cover up crimes committed against the powerless by those in power.

Forgiveness as cover up colludes with the conspiracy of silence about clergy sexual abuse. This abusive use of forgiveness wounds the already wounded. Thus we crucify Christ over and over. Thus we wound the Church itself and its faithful. Thus we wound Jesus and the gift of healing he proffers.

We in the Church are loose-lipped with the most gracious gift God has given to us and calls us to share. Perhaps the worst abusive use of forgiveness is the sin of spiritual arrogance—assuming we can do it ourselves without divine help. Thus we wound even the mercies of God.


How long can this go on? My head spins on its axis like Janus. One side angry the other sad. But it’s all my face, angry and sad at once.


I have chosen and continue to choose to serve and love this damn Christian Church for better or worse. I try to say it's just the Roman Catholic Church. I make excuses for my Episcopal Church because its politics are conciliar; it’s more progressive; and by grace and grit it manages to pull off amazingly inclusive actions of which I’m proud.


But excuses are just excuses. None matter because this kind of abuse goes on in all churches to say nothing of all secular institutions. No one is exempt. More often than not all is “forgiven,” hidden, passed along without consequence except for those who live with unhealed wounds. That, not clergy sexual abuse, is the true hidden wound of the Church.


Whatever happened to repentance another pretty strong Christian teaching? Ignored for some, demanded for others? Forgiveness misused itself becomes a stone, hurled without reflection.


I think of a woman who was sexually abused consistently and in the name of Love for years. She had no power to refuse the seduction from Father XYZ; she grew up never knowing who her biological father was; she prayed regularly to “our Father in heaven...” and then there was the priest called “father.” These three incarnations became scrambled in her mind while she longed for and waited for her real (biological) father to come, the father to whom she would have given her soul. Instead she gave her body. She gave it to an Episcopal priest for nothing and she has never gotten it back. Of course she has her own sins that beg forgiveness. But to name her wound and its perpetrator was not one of her sins.


Making God into a parent, an exclusively male parent, may not be such a good idea. Jesus may have used this term of affection for his God. But today, metaphors like Father are no longer useful.

The sorrowful side of my face weeps for this woman and for so many others. I also weep for priests who are trapped in a system that is impotent in its structures and is too afraid to help them with their own wounds, too fearful in fact to truly forgive them!


My heart also weeps for Jesus and the gift he didn’t just teach but acted out in his life, the gift of forgiveness without condemnation but with a call to faith, to re-grounding in God, in community and in the best of the human self.

How? He suggested prayer and compassion. He suggested that God is the only being with heart-capacity enough to forgive.


It is not ongoing clergy sexual abuse that is the Church’s hidden wound; it is the hidden and unacknowledged abuses against forgiveness. Justice is made a mockery, yes, but that pales next to the abusive uses of forgiveness.


My rant is done. If anyone dares to forgive me for it I have stones.
* * * *
P.S. The letter by the defender of Father X was awarded “letter of the week” by the parish’s editorial staff.
The letter sent in response was not published.

One can only hope that such editorial decisions have not escaped Sophia’s notice and transformation has taken place.