This week ( on May 26) Pat Conroy S.J., a Jesuit of the Oregon Province, is due to be inaugurated as the 60th House Chaplain for the House of Representatives-- the first such Jesuit chaplain and only the second Catholic priest to hold the position. I knew Pat almost thirty years ago when he was a student at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley where I taught on the faculty. He took my course on Catholic Social Teaching. Naturally, I am delighted at his being chosen for the task. I have always felt a warm kindness toward Pat because he rescued me, one exceedingly cold morning in Washington, D.C., when I arrived at the Georgetown Jesuit residence. After trying in vain to alert several older fathers who passed by the front window I was knocking on ( in, perhaps naive, kindness I presume they were deaf and blind), I was left stranded in the cold. Eventually, Pat let me indoors and kindly helped me find my room and asked if there was anything else he could do for me.
To my dismay, however, a kind of firestorm broke out after his nomination was made known on May 11. By a kind of ' guilt by association', various groups, including S.N.A.P., tried to link Conroy somehow to the stupendous financial settlement ( $166 million dollars) his Jesuit province made to cover allegations of some 400 claims of sexual abuse of under-aged people by Jesuits and non-Jesuit lay workers in Oregon's Jesuit apostolates. At the news conference at Jesuit High in Portland where Conroy recently taught, S.N.A.P. ( a major support group for victims of clerical sexual abuse) laid out an array of pictures of children abused by priests. Some groups claimed that any priest from the Oregon Province ( no matter his own inner probity) should never be considered for such a public position as House Chaplain.
In his career, Conroy twice served as a priest ministering to Native Americans. Many of the alleged sex abuse cases from the Oregon Province's past ( note: not its recent past!) occurred on Native American reservations ( especially in Alaska). None, however, occurred when Conroy served the reservation. On one occasion, in 1986, Conroy wrote the Archbishop of Seattle to tell him that an under-aged person had informed him that a priest of the diocese had propositioned him ( nothing as such, in the event, actually occurred). Later, in 2002, that priest was ultimately de-frocked for sexual abuse of minors. As Conroy has noted, when he heard of the allegation he did what he should have then done--reported it, immediately, to the man's Archbishop.
Reflecting on this recent firestorm and attempt to paint Conroy by guilt by association, I was led again to think about the complicated reality of forgiveness. A few weeks ago I wrote a review, for the on-line culture section of America magazine, of the two- part PBS series on Forgiveness. In it, I noted that some victims do not choose to forgive ( although they may ultimately suffer from not doing so). Some perpetrators may need merely to make amends, even if forgiveness for their wrong is never offered them. In an on-line blog for former members of the California Jesuits ( Companeros), several bloggers faulted me for not raising that issue of sex abuse of minors in my review and remarks about forgiveness ( how it is not always easy to forgive or be forgiven). The T.V. series I was reviewing, however, never raised the issue.
Sometimes one gets the impression that some victims of priest abuse will never forgive the church, no matter what. Whatever the church does to try to make amends ( in statements of sorrow, in monetary settlements) gets met with claims that it is not enough, not sincere, not attached to appropriate action. To be sure, even non-victims ( such as myself) may still have difficulty believing that some of our bishops really ' get it' or always act consequently on accusations of sex abuse of minors. Almost no erring bishop who hid or covered up abusing priests has ever been removed from office or been really censored. So, in fairness, it may not yet be time for some 'easy' forgiveness for the church's sins in this matter.
I am reminded, however, of two powerful slogans of 12 Step recovery programs. The first has to do with forgiving both oneself and others who have wronged us: "Let Go and Let God." Not to forgive, often enough, means that victims never let go of past hurts, never turn to rebuild a new life. The second slogan has to do with the insistence of 12 Step recovery programs that the person who has done wrong to others must make amends ( both by changing their behavior and trying to undo wrongs committed against others). They are called to amends, even if forgiveness by the one wronged never is rendered back to them. Making amends is about justice and integrity, not forgiveness as such.
One reason victims who do not forgive can suffer is that in their ( often justified) anger and desire for a just amends, they can also overstep and cause harm themselves, actually victimize others. S.N.A.P. and other groups' attempt to paint Conroy in guilt by association is just such a real harm. I was in Conroy's home province, at Seattle University, making my annual retreat, when the firestorm about his appointment became public. I know of few Jesuit communities as hospitable and edifying as the Jesuit community at Seattle University. I always come away from visits there uplifted in spirit by being with such Jesuits. A Jesuit scholastic friend of mine who has been teaching at Seattle University told me he too knew of few Jesuit communities of such support, solidarity and genuine fervor. But, he said, many of them were quite depressed because the huge sex abuse settlement from the Oregon Province has led, for them too, to a kind of ' guilt by association' for things they themselves never did nor would countenance. Moreover, the settlement which has bankrupted the Oregon Province means that alternate uses of such money ( for scholarships for the poor etc.) are not now available.
Jesuits will recall, surely, Saint Ignatius' urging of a prayer for " the third degree of humility". That third degree of humility means that Jesuits pray to accept false accusations and slanders, inasmuch as being victims of them they can become closer to Jesus who was also slandered and falsely accused. I suspect Conroy recalled that Ignatian prayer when confronted with the attempts to paint him with guilt by association.
In any event, I feel assured that this experience, along with his early ministry to Native Americans, may make Conroy especially sensitive to victims and those most in need of support. Surely, just now, our House of Representatives also may need some reminders of an option for the poor, as it attempts to slash programs which Catholic social teaching claims are essential for human dignity ( adequate housing, jobs, medical care as a human right). Without injecting any partisan political content into his prayers in the House ( he will not!), I hope and pray Conroy will pick up that central Jewish-Christian theme, so central to the scriptures, that God will ultimately judge us on how we deal with widows, orphans and resident aliens in our land!