Where Is God in the Clergy Abuse Crisis?

As the crisis of sexual abuse by members of the clergy grinds on and on, victims and perpetrators alike must surely be asking, Where is God in all this? The answer may come more easily to the victims. Consider envisioning God the way Jesus does in Lk. 15:8: What woman having 10 coins and losing one would not light a lamp and sweep the house, searching carefully until she finds it? I see God rolling up her sleeves, getting out the broom and dustpan, opening the windows and lighting all the lights. Nothing is going to remain hidden while she searches for what has been lost.

Those of us who have been hidden behind shame, disbelief and coverup are heaving a sigh of relief. We are not invisible. We do count enough, to someone, to be found, seen and heard.

Wethe people of this housecleaning Godreact in different ways to the mess and its cleansing: It’s about time! I didn’t make this mess; why do I have to help clean it up? I’m too little to help. I have more important things to do. Why are you picking on me? Can’t we turn off the lights and do this later?

Yet like a good mother, God keeps inviting us all to help. We have choices to make. How will we respond?

Messes are never fun to clean, but we have to be willing to do it anyway. We do it not only for the victims, but for the whole community. As long as there are any among us who remain unprotected, whose wounds we do not tend, we as a community remain victimized as well. Suddenly we resemble the perpetrators, acting as if the victims do not really matter to us. For abuse victims, it is often more difficult to recover from not being heard and believed than from the original abuse. When stonewalling turns into blame (they were seductive; they’re just opportunists trying to profit from a bad situation) victims feel doubly abused.

Can we look at the victims more compassionately? Are we willing to ask the tougher, more important questions? What will help the victims heal? What will help us heal? The wounds we are all experiencing (as victims, bystanders and perpetrators) are as much spiritual as psychological. Psychotherapy by itself cannot heal them. As Jesus told the disciples when they failed to cast the demon out of the little boy, this kind of demon requires much prayer and fasting. Our present demon requires, in addition, much honesty and community effort.

Genuine community effort, however, is problematic as long as the bishops guard their power so closely. As big brothers, at least in terms of power, the bishops must decide if they are grown up enough to allow the laity a full voice at the table. Can they acknowledge how much they need usnot just our money? Or must they continue little-boy chest-thumping: I’m stronger and wiser than you. The church is no democracy. I am the boss.

As younger siblings, at least in terms of power, the laity must decide how to handle our arrogant older brothers. We can confront them, of course, or we can ignore them until they get over themselves. We can also just do what God calls us to do without worrying too much about the reaction of bishops. Can we keep our hearts open, so that when they are willing to get down on their hands and knees and help with the scrubbing, we are prepared to welcome them?

We have to decide if we are willing to clean deeply. Most of the attention in this crisis has focused on the abuse of young boys and male adolescents. Are we also willing to look at the abuse of adolescent girls, or must we pretend they were consenting when a priest twice their age pressed them into a sexual relationship? More deeply still, are we willing to address sexual abuse in all the places it occurs? Many who suffered sexual abuse in their families are experiencing a re-emergence of symptoms triggered by this crisis.

While victims of clergy abuse are finally gaining visibility, most victims of sexual abuse in families are not. It is estimated that one in three women has been sexually abused. Although, admittedly, clergy do not account for the majority of these cases, they cannot be let off the hook entirely. We must listen to the many victims whose voices are still not being heard. We must open our eyes and ears.

We must also decide if we are going to approach this task self-righteously, or whether we are willing to look at our own complicity. It is human nature to look for someone else to blame. Thomas Merton said the world we see around us is a reflection of the souls of the majority of its inhabitants. Without excusing the perpetrators, should we not examine ourselves as well? What in us has contributed to a world where abuse is possible on such a scale? Haven’t we all, at some time, engaged in the coverup of bad behavior? What about the many children in every community who are sexually and physically abused in their homes? What have we done about this? For the most part, don’t we just look the other way or claim there is nothing we can do? Doesn’t that place us on the same continuum, albeit not so far along, as the bishops who looked the other way?

This is the time for all of us together to repent and pray for a change of heart. We share a call to take more seriously the protection of all children from all abusers.

God is rolling up her sleeves. We all know there is a mess, that the house is dirty. The windows of opportunity are open; the closet is full of brooms and mops. God cannot do it alone.

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13 years 8 months ago
The articles on sexual scandals in the church in the Sept. 16 issue point up the fact that as the discussion continues, the confusion grows.

At least part of the problem arises from the fact that for centuries the sacramental and theological nature of the priesthood has been bound up with its professional identity, both in the so-called clerical culture and in canon law. There is nothing strange or sinister about this, but from time to time, the desire to protect the profession has occurred at the expense of and to the injury of the sacral character of the priesthood. Again, we should not condemn this outright. Every professional group seeks to protect its position from nonprofessional interference. But the possibility for abuse exists. Malpractice goes unpunished or is covered over.

We Catholics need to make an important distinction between the legitimate need to protect the priesthood as central to the theology of the church and the professional failure to prosecute abuses out of a confusion of professional status with the sacred character of the priesthood, even to the point where some abuses, even in canon law, impede or prevent the implementation of penalties for malpractice of all kinds, including the terrible crimes that have been exposed.

Penalties for malpractice have nothing to do with sacramental penance. No doubt these individuals confessed their sins, though they may not have been given proper guidance on the subject of reparation. We cannot judge the state of their souls. We can ask that the priestly profession exercise due care to ensure that its professional actions do not lead to malpractice.

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