The National Catholic Review
Difficult as it may be, forgiving priests guilty of abuse could be the key to healing.

On a frigid night last January, Joseph R. Maher, a successful businessman and president of Opus Bono Sacerdotii, spoke at a parish on Long Island in New York. Opus Bono’s mission is to provide help for priests who have been expelled from ministry because of accusations of sexual abuse. In the audience were priests, abuse victims and members of Voice of the Faithful. Although the opening prayer called for healing and reconciliation, the tension in the room militated against both.

In his talk, Maher argued that a large number of accused priests are innocent and that, abandoned by bishops and laity, they are denied the resources to clear their names. He spoke also of the need to give culpable priests opportunities to reform and return to active ministry. And he said that many victims who claim abuse are merely seeking financial gain, and argued against the suspension of statutes of limitation in cases of sexual molestation.

Although every one of Maher’s points had some validity, his failure to nuance them incited the audience. One after another, individuals came to the microphone to voice criticism of Maher’s insensitivity. What began as a good-faith attempt to bring together people concerned about both victims and accused priests concluded by exposing what one person in attendance termed “the still open wound on the soul of the church.” The discussion reached its nadir when one woman declared, “For such men no healing is possible.”

What does such a statement imply about the power of Christ’s redemptive love? Has the church, from top to bottom, determined that those who have sexually abused minors are outside of the circle of those whom God can forgive? Is there no grace left for them?

Healing the Wounded

Sexual abuse of minors is widespread; in addition to abuse by priests, many more have been abused by relatives and family friends. What healing can compassionate believers bring to the wounded?

Forgiveness, a key to healing, can be hard. Few betrayed and battered men and women can extend an easy absolution. Many find religious language offensive. For those whose anger and pain are still too overwhelming to consider forgiveness, a giant step might be, in the words of a therapist, to pray for the grace to want to forgive.

There is no question that victims must be appropriately cared for as long as they require it. Settlement money can buy helpful therapy. Systems must be put in place to deal with specific accusations, and all must remain vigilant to prevent today’s children from suffering abuse. Yet while these practices have widespread support, there is little talk of forgiveness of the abuser as part of the formula that contributes to healing.

One hesitates to approach the suffering created by sexual molestation, especially by clergymen, as one hesitates upon entering a surgical ward. We dare not touch the pain. We choose, instead, to leave it to the professionals. Unfortunately, the professionals may not always provide wise counsel. Consider therapists who advise against broaching the topic of forgiveness for fear of increasing the victim’s rage and impeding recovery, or attorneys who forbid contact with the victim because they do not want to risk a lawsuit, or church leaders who fear any wrong step will trigger an explosive media blitz that will further diminish their effectiveness as witnesses to the Gospel.

In this atmosphere, especially when it includes episcopal cover-up, it is not surprising that victims are unwilling to forgive their abusers. Their resistance is understandable. This hurt is not abstract; it is wedded to anger and rooted in pain, injustice, abandonment and a sense of betrayal. Among its long-term damaging effects is the possibility that, if left to fester, it can become a debilitating way of life. To remain immersed in suffering is to extend its power, even drawing loved ones into the circle of pain. Tragically, the children of the abused can be infected by their parents’ anger and obsession, leading to their own loss of innocence.

The Hard Work of Forgiveness

Holding onto anger has been likened to taking a sip of poison every day—not enough to kill, but more than enough to debilitate. Certainly some time must pass before the palliative value of forgiveness can be raised. The question is, how much time? There is no single answer. For some, forgiveness is the work of a lifetime; others manage to forgive more quickly, helped by people with the requisite sensitivity and wisdom.

Forgiveness does not mean forgetting, nor does it rule out punishment appropriate to criminal behavior. The Rev. Richard P. McBrien writes: “To be forgiven from a sin does not carry with it pardon for a crime or a guaranteed return to one’s former employment. A murderer who repents and confesses may be restored to the state of grace, but not to freedom.” Each murder case is judged in terms of mitigating factors, and different sentences are imposed.

Should we not also consider mitigating factors in cases of sexual abuse? Is it reasonable to exclude permanently all the guilty from ministry, to treat a one-time offender the same as a serial predator? Certainly some offenders need to be imprisoned or supervised so that they do not harm again. Some expelled priests find themselves pariahs, abandoned and isolated; in this state, a sense of despair may tempt them to seek victims again. Yet others, earnestly repentant, healed through therapy and support systems, pose no further threat and hold a proven record of dedicated priestly service. Ought we to judge any human being by the worst thing he has done, as if it were the only thing he has done? Can any of us endure that scrutiny?

The late Rabbi Abraham Heschel said that while it is important to consider all sides of destructive and broken relationships, it is essential to include God’s perspective as well. God’s own relentless pursuit of each sinner and saint finds expression in the father of the prodigal son, or the lover in Francis Thompson’s poem “The Hound of Heaven”; God longs only for the sinner’s repentance and homecoming.

Looking to Maya Angelou

Persons sexually abused as children might take some direction from the poet Maya Angelou. She was raped when she was 7 years old. So brutal was the violation that she was hospitalized. From her bed of pain and shame she spoke the rapist’s name. Arrested and released, he was later found kicked to death. Because she had uttered his name, the child blamed herself for her abuser’s death. Like others before and after her, she felt culpable, if not for the rape, then for its consequences. As a result, she refused to speak for five years. In her self-imposed solitude she became an avid reader, drinking in the wisdom of the ages from Shakespeare to Langston Hughes. Sitting silently in church, she would concentrate on the inflections preachers used to convey their passion. When she was ready to resume speaking, she had much to say and the tools with which to say it. Since then, she has embraced this formula for self-healing: One who has suffered a great evil must name it, learn from it, forgive it and move forward with courage and focus on the future. Forgiveness had no power to change her past, but it had enormous power to mold her future.

Many years ago during a television show on evil, Bill Moyers said: “Victims of evil must cope with the ugly graffiti that is scribbled on the walls of their psyche. Can they forgive the evildoers? Should they?” An answer can be found in the wisdom of the Quakers, who remind us that “forgiveness is a gift we give ourselves.”

Camille D’Arienzo, R.S.M., is a member of the Mid-Atlantic Community of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas.

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Carolyn Disco | 8/13/2008 - 11:25am
Maher’s many accusations against survivors are just too painful to read, and I am sorry Sr. Camille did not address the distortions. Maher does not know what he is talking about, and I am simply too weary to gather the evidence here for refutation. (Dominican and noted survivor advocate Tom Doyle has written elsewhere on the myth of false allegations with *evidentiary back-up.* And the old canard again about money-hungry survivors belies my experience witnessing the debilitating legal process.) No wonder the meeting degenerated as it did. There are points to make about the role of forgiveness in healing but once again blame is assigned to survivors. Please leave them alone to make their journeys as best they can without singling them out for well-meaning but hurtful advice. Survivors have endured bishops playing the forgiveness card for years as a means of keeping them quiet and not pressing charges. Leon Podles has a discussion of forgiveness in his book, Sacrilege (available from Amazon), that I find interesting: “For the offending party (or anyone else) to ask for forgiveness of an offense without repentance is the sin of presumption. In fact it is worse than presumption, because it is asking a mere mortal to do something that is unbecoming to God. It is the “cheap grace” that Dietrich Bonhoeffer denounced the Church for preaching – forgiveness without repentance. Underlying this misunderstanding of forgiveness are nominalistic presuppositions…” p. 482-3. Bishops do not admit their true culpability; perpetrators deny and rationalize the truth of their abuse. We cannot move forward based on falsehood. For those abusers who do speak truth from the heart and repent, yes, forgiveness, but that should not provide an automatic right to reinstatement. Someone sent me the America link, and it is a good reminder of why I find the magazine too difficult to read on survivor issues.
Katherine Lawrence | 8/12/2008 - 2:42pm
I agree the author and love the comments by Mary G. aug/12/2008. Regarding mary ellen's comment that "The hierarchy who transferred credibly accused priests from parish to parish without alerting pastors, who were aware of repeated accusations and continued to enable further abuse need to ask US for forgiveness," -- I understand the anger: in working with women who have been sexually abused as children, I learned that there is/was a culture that surrounded victims' inability to get help because family members, schools, institutions 'covered up'. This makes me realize that the problem isn't a 'priest thing,' or a 'catholic thing' but a human thing as the author suggests - and something we can change, yes?
MARY GRIESEMER | 8/12/2008 - 8:45am
Thank you for putting into words what I feel so strongly about forgiveness. I have a dear friend who has extended a loving hand to two priests accused of abuse. She made them welcome at her table along with family and friends. From them we heard first hand the pain and humiliation they suffered. Because of my friend's total acceptance of these men and hearing their stories I felt God's abundant mercy and forgiveness. I have a new and deeper appreciation of Communion.
Mary Ellen Norpel | 8/11/2008 - 6:58pm
Has Mr. Mayer listened to any of the abuse victims? They are broken people. A competent therapist will be able to detect the right time to suggest forgiving the abuser. A blanket call for forgiveness needs to be requested, not of the victims, but by the hierarchy who participated in covering up the abuse. How do we, the Church, begin to forgive the bishops? The hierarchy who transferred credibly accused priests from parish to parish without alerting pastors, who were aware of repeated accusations and continued to enable further abuse need to ask US for forgiveness. If confession is good for the souls of the faithful it is also good for our leaders.
Bruce Snowden | 8/11/2008 - 6:38pm
In case you are wondering "Mercy Toward Our Fathers" was just posted but my name now sent remained behind. Don't know how.
Bruce Snowden | 8/11/2008 - 6:38pm
In case you are wondering "Mercy Toward Our Fathers" was just posted but my name now sent remained behind. Don't know how.
Bruce Snowden | 8/11/2008 - 6:32pm
"Mercy Toward Our Fathers" by Camille D'Arienzo (America 8/18/08) offers a superior focus on the difficulty of forgiving priests accused of sexually abusing minors. Copies of this article ought to be offered to every Bishop for distribution to priests and parishioners in respective dioceses. Everyone motivated by truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, knows that homosexual, pedophilic and also a type of foricative rape of female minors as the case may be, by Catholic priests is not a "priest-thing" - it is a predatory "human-thing" infecting not only some Catholic clergy, but also some non-Catholic and non-Christian clerics as well. Additionally some laity of all Faiths, or of no Faith at all, male and female alike may also sexually abuse minors and it exists in all social strata and in all professions barring none! So, it's not a "priest-thing" as certain media often implies! We are a Fallen Race infected by tendencies to sin and crime in one way, or the other, fortunately rarely as youth sexual predators. Thank God! It goes without saying when an actual sexual crime has been committed by a priest, the offending cleric must face ecclesial and civil punishment, but the punishment by the Church must be laced with mercy and forgiveness as Christ would do. The Church (Bishops) and also the Faithful must never abandon an erring priest, no matter the sin, no matter the crime, but in every possible way reach out supportively offering merciful forgiveness as would Christ, including when necessary financial help and even medical help. It also goes without saying that all necessary treatment and support for years if necessary, must be given by the Church (Bishop) to clerical sexually abused victims and their families as Christ would do. This includes pastoral counsels to the abused and their families to be merciful and forgiving, mindful of the Lord's command, "Be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful." To conclude, it is my humble opinion as Sister D'Arienzo implies in "Mercy Toward Our Fathers" that, no real healing can happen until parents of the abused teach their abused children by their example to forgive in mercy the abusive priest. Parents must teach their victimized children to forgive from the heart and I repeat again, respectfully, that they must do the same! And it is important to be ever watchful that predatory litigators smelling "blood" not be encouraged by victims and families to go for the kill, to "eat the sins of the poor" so to speak, I mean the sins of the poor forgiven as Scripture says by alms-giving, such alms being the singular greatest source of the Church's "riches!" But rather seek a settlement that is both just and charitable, not greedy and unreal!
FRANK CANDALISA | 8/11/2008 - 3:26pm
We all too often forget that forgiveness is part of the healing process no matter what the cause of the pain. I think more people have to realize, as was stated in the article, "forgiveness does not mean forgetting nor does it rule out punishment...". It is very difficult to let go of a pain that has been a part of our lives for longer that we care remember. The longer we hold on to the hurt the longer we allow the person who hurt us to control our lives. This kind of forgiveness does not happen over night. It is a process that takes time, prayer, and God's Grace. The more we forgive the more we are able to love and be loved. It is good to be reminded that nothing is beyond God's ability to forgive. Thank you for this article, I don't think many people are willing to broach the subject of forgiveness in light sexual abuse by clergy.
SGINNC | 8/8/2008 - 4:07pm
There were two articles to be written here, one about the victims seeking to heal and quite another about the abusers. To combine them was a mistake..... Forgiveness is a process. My brother was senselessly murdered in a drive by shooting a number of years ago. I have never felt the need to forgive his murderer and yet pray that God has done so. Louis Evely wrote, "You can endure the suffering in your life if you know it serves some good purpose." We have all to determine that in our own time and in our own way. Forgiving does not necessarily mean the end of suffering and the end of suffering does not necessarily mean one can forgive. It is certainly more complicated that your article conveys and yet we are all poor, we are all in need of healing, we are all children of God and we have been granted his grace. Thank you.


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