Mercy Toward Our Fathers: 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.”

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
11 years 11 months ago
URGENT REVISION TO EARLIER POST Dear Catholics, Alas, my spiritual director's guidance to pick open my ancient scab has backfired terribly. The sore became infected and spread up my leg, resulting in an infection so terrible that last week it had to be amputated just above the knee. I am now suing the Archdiocese of Los Angeles for N zillion dollars. Cardinal Mahoney was last seen setting up a lemonade stand near the former site of the LAAD. If you are thirsty, kindly support him and my effots to obtain legal relief. Best and blessings, L ************************* This is humor, one of my 25 Ways to Keep the Healing Going. "Att" is another. In the process of researching my book on the Sunday Celebration in the Absence of a Priest (has there EVER been a grimmer name for a Rite?) the rabbi who heads the prison chaplains had me laughing over and over with his tales of Catholic-Jewish unions within the prison walls. "We are both troubled faiths," said this wise man. "We Jews are just farther down the road of using laughter and art to heal." To read the entire draft, dear Jesuit fathers and friends, just show interest in any of the usual ways: email to, text to (310) 430-4941 or call (310) 396-4448. Or don't. I'm quite thick-skinned. My spiritual director wondered if I has the chutzpah to post this. I didn't...until Rabbi Zvi egged me on.
11 years 11 months ago
The heart of Camille D'Arienzo's article was the importance of forgiveness in the process of healing. It was unfortunate that she chose to co-mingle that message with a plea for the restoration to ministry for the offender. Many survivors will have a hard time hearing Camille's valid and true message, forgiveness is essential to the process of healing, because of that co-mingling. Pedophilia is incurable, compulsive and habitual, it can only be controled by extensive therapy, medication and supervision. It is foolhardy to believe we can restore a predator to any environment with children. Forgiveness is a process often times difficult, complicated and may take a long time to reach in the journey of healing. One reason it is difficult is precisely because well meaning People of Faith connect forgiveness to restoration in ministry and thus survivors often interpret this as meaning all is forgotten, along with their pain. This leaves the survivor with a feeling of further alienation and isolation. It took me years to reach a point where I was able to forgive my perpetrator in my heart. Now I remember him in my prayers and hope we shall both see heaven even as my soul quivers with trepedation at the thought of us being there together. Forgiveness is indeed a gift you give to yourself, an anidote to the poison.
11 years 11 months ago
It took reading through all of the comments to get to the one that really gets to what Jesus asks of us. Forgive us as we forgive. Not if we want to forgive or if someone has been punished for wrongdoing. Not if we are healed of a terrible hurt. Someone in one of the early comments said we take something from God if we forgive. No. God has given us that as something we must do--like it or not if we are to be forgiven as we would like. Revenge, punishment are the things that belong to God. Not to us. We are outraged by sexual abuse or injustice done to others. That makes us human. God does ask more of us. God asks us to forgive others who trespass against us and we will be forgiven as we forgive. It is so very, very difficult. God has a lot of nerve.
11 years 11 months ago
It is doubtful that Adam and Eve were able to do otherwise than follow the directions of God to leave Cain and his fate to Him/Her. Cain disappeared to the land of Nod according to the story. Those left grieving obviously worked on their grief and left it to God to effect "punishment/reward" for Cain's actions. Pedophile Clergy and Religious have "killed" people in another way. The victims are the "living dead". The first issue is to remove them (the "killers") from our society and not to inflict them on any other. This is the Justice part and is combined with caring for those suffering. This may take money and this has to come from the Organisation that was so involved in the "cover-up". This too is Justice. Next is the issue of forgiveness but this does not require the presence of those who carried out the crime. It requires the Community of the Church working together to heal those affected. Then there is the issue of what to do with the criminals. Until we as a community can work through a solution to the issue they need to remain as non members of the Community. They are to be locked up as they are "insane" and unable to understand the enormity of their crime. Maybe in the future there will be time to consider what some think is the altruistic vision proposed by D'Arienzo or some appropriate response to the the money motivated option of Maher but until then healing needs to take place with the victims without the perpetrators being out of prison and without the twisted thoughts of either Maher or D'Arienzo being paraded for consideration.
11 years 10 months ago
I was a victim of sexual assault. I use the word "was" because I remained a victim until I forgave my abuser and moved on with my life, a process that concluded some years ago. Having said that, I want to comment on "Mercy Toward Our Fathers" by Sister Camille D’Arienzo, and on some of what has been posted here in the aftermath of this excellent article. As a Catholic and sexual abuse "survivor," I watched with much concern as the priesthood scandal unfolded in 2002. I was riveted to the story of one of the victims, a middle -aged man, who angrily revealed in front of TV cameras, the harm done to him some thirty years ago. I listened as this man blamed everything that had ever gone wrong in his life on the priest who took advantage of him. I listened as his lawyer held press conferences describing why his scores of clients each deserved enhanced settlements from the Church (minus a 40 percent contingency fee, of course). Six years went by, and I recently listened again as the same man addressed a meeting of Voice of the Faithful (VOTF) saying the very same things he said six years ago. The only addition – a six-figure settlement and a personal meeting with the Holy Father notwithstanding – was a claim that the Church has not done enough to ease his suffering or to respond to the crisis. I listened as someone in these pages equated such suffering with the horrors of the Holocaust. I have listened enough. I will not hear another word from these so-called survivors and groups like VOTF that seem intent upon enabling them to never move on. I have heard enough. It was the comparison with the Holocaust that has driven me over the edge. I have never before heard such narcissistic, self-serving, irresponsible rhetoric, and I will not hear any more of it. It offends every part of me, but it especially offends that part of me that worked so hard to recover from sexual victimization. Enough is enough. The sexual abuse of minors has been an epidemic in our society, and we have found a convenient scapegoat in the small percentage of priests who offended and in a Church that failed to act in 1975 as it would in 2005. There will not be true justice for victims until we move beyond the false notion that the Church and priesthood have been a special locus of sexual abuse, a myth that has benefited no one but personal injury lawyers and THEIR enablers in SNAP and VOTF. There will not be justice for victims until every institution in our culture embraces the transparency that has been embraced by the Catholic Church. Where is the public release of documents about accused clergy from other denominations? Why are public schools shielded from civil liability for abuse? Most alarming of all is the rhetoric about the so-called "cycle of abuse." Why did Congressman Foley get to shift blame for his own misconduct on the priest he claimed abused him? The so-called cycle of victimhood is such a convenient phenomenon. If it is true, then who is keeping an eye on the hundreds of middle-aged men who have received windfall financial settlements claiming abuse by priests in their childhoods? As long as we allow VOTF, SNAP and others with an agenda to keep us bound up in the cycle of blame and vilification and loathing, there can be no healing for the victims, for the Church, for anyone. It is time for some of the so-called victim advocates in this picture to recognize that they are doing far more harm than good. I applaud Sister D'Arienzo for having the courage to write so openly against a seeming tidal wave of angry, unproductive rhetoric. Arguing for anything less than forgiveness and healing is to perpetrate and perpetuate abuse. It is time to turn off the TV cameras, send the lawyers packing, stop vilifying the new class of lepers we have created among the accused in our Church, and act like the Catholic Christians most of us strive to be. Santiago Cruz
11 years 9 months ago
First, sexual abusers shouldn't get a pass because of "one indiscretion." You can forgive someone and still prevent them from hurting others. I completely understand why so many abuse survivors were angered by this attitude put forth by Sister D'Arienzo. Second, forgivness is *not* necessary for healing. Justice and closure are. Moving on is necessary, yes, but the surivors of this abuse will not be able to move on while representatives of the Church call upon God to strike down the media when they report these things (which Bernard Law did, hey, thanks! very forgiving that). They will not be able to move on while the church continues to deny and cover up its culpability in this. They will not be able to move on when they are likened to gold-diggers and bloodsuckers by the likes of Joe Maher and other regressive folks who insist that all priests are blameless, and anyone who was abused is lying. They will not be able to move on when their pain is briefly acknowledged before they are treated to a a litanty of finger-wagging about how they must forgive to move on (though no one should *force them* oh, NO). If forgiveness shouldn't be forced on anyone, why all this pressure on survivors to forgive? I realize that the anger in the comments section to this article is off-putting, however, it would behoove Sister D'Arienzo and the editors of America Magazine to examine WHY they are getting such reactions, instead of getting so defensive. Here's a hint--it's not because these people are occupying the moral low ground. Even people who have moved on may not forgive, and frankly, that's okay. You can chose not to forgive and still not hold onto anger and hate. But to berate people oh-so-gently into forgiving is downright cruel, especially considering the fact that an international institution denied this abuse, enabled it, and covered it up for YEARS.
11 years 8 months ago
Re: Mercy toward our Fathers (Sr. Camille D'Arienzo, America 8/18) After reading Sr. Camille's wonderful article, I followed the comments here with some agreement, but much concern for the tone of most. How interesting that the view of Santiago Cruz seemed to be the final word. Well, I want to echo the thoughts of Mr. Cruz. He wrote what I believe many Catholics have thought and felt for some time, but have been hesitant to write for fear of being demonized by SNAP, VOTF and other "advocates." I agree with Mr. Cruz that real advocacy would lead victims to survive their victim-hood, not to wallow in it, profit from it, engage in smear campaigns because of it. I do not blame the victims of clergy sexual abuse for being hurt and angry, but no one should be more alarmed, insulted, and dispirited by false claims than real victims of sexual abuse. I believe that many of those who have used the current climate to demand financial settlements with no offer of proof are victims of nothing more than their own greed and lack of morally guiding principles. Santiago Cruz is right. Why is the victim of a priest so much more harmed than the victim of a teacher or coach, or minister? Yet teachers and school systems - which have been proven to have exponentially greater incidences of abuse - are exempt from litigation and vicarious responsibility. Why are SNAP and VOTF okay with that? The fact that they seem to have nothing to say about it is evidence that they are merely using The Scandal for some other agenda that has nothing to do with protecting children. I recently read that SNAP called a press conference from the office of a contingency lawyer to announce a lawsuit against the Jesuits because of the alleged behavior of a now elderly priest over 40 years ago. No one can prove or disprove such a claim, but the smear campaign and bullying into a lucrative settlement are already well underway. It is time for SNAP and VOTF to fold up and go away. They have done far more harm than good to real victims of abuse like Santiago Cruz. I thank him for opening my eyes to this. The only way VOTF can survive and serve our Church is to publicly denounce SNAP, its tactics, and its open promotion of contingency lawyers' goal to bankrupt Catholic institutions and then move on to some other trough. The abuse scandal is over. What we are seeing now is the abuse of the abuse scandal, and some rather shameless profiteering by what has become a gang of thugs masked as advocates. It's time for the Church's leaders to be shepherds again, and not sheep to be fleeced. It is time for them to stop throwing their priests to the litigious wolves. Greed ranks right up there with lust among the Seven Deadly Sins. Ryan A. MacDonald
Sues Krebs
11 years 8 months ago
The question is not did the abuse happen? It is: did the truama begin in the Priest's childhood! Is he a victim re-inacting past trauma in an unsafe way? Or is the child with the broken trust a victim of a bad leader? Is it a man who appeared superhuman being reduced to human weakness or an attempt to devert attension away from the real abuser? Sometimes when we are hurt or betrayed, we feel it is necessary to protect ourselves and our memory for the trauma leads the mind to replace the abuser with a person who resembles the abuser in some way. The victim is still a victim of abuse but the person at fault may not always be punished for their actions. So past injuries affect the growth and development of the victim until they meet a person resembling the abuser and fear that person as well.
11 years 8 months ago
Ryan, the church is an international institution that covered up these crimes and quietly moved these priests, multiple times, when they continued to assault and violate children--the damage was great, and the Church has only recently began to begrudgingly acknowledge its role in this atrocity. The Church did act as if the laws applied to it or the priests who were part of it (witness Bernard Law calling on God to strike down the media for reporting on the Father Porter sexual abuse cases back in 1991). And yes, schools HAVE been sued by those who had been sexually abused by teachers or coaches. If you think SNAP and VOTF are demonizing people because they disagree with them, then you may need to cut yourself off from people and lay your head on fluffy pillows. Not everyone will agree with you. For a better example of demonization, take a good look at Joe Maher, who insists that all priests are innocent, and all people who have come forward about their abuse are lying golddiggers. Again--it chills me to the bone that Sister D'Arienzo can advocate putting a priest who "only" molested a child "once" should be allowed to continue leading his flock. Really? I sure wouldn't be okay with that if it was in the parish where my niece and nephew were members. I thought that forgiveness didn't mean forgetting, or saying that it was okay to do what you did. Except when it does. There is no real unified definition of forgiveness--either we forget and let the people who badly hurt us go back into their positions of power to continue hurting us (sorta like what the Church did--and didn't that just work out SWELL) or we don't forget and hold them accountable but do this mysterious thing called forgive which, I guess, means to stop being angry and stop mentioning this icky and uncomfortable subject about sexual abuse and justice and accountability. And yes, you know, I'm sorry, but that's just bleeding insensitive. People who were abused and denied and ignored are going to be angry. Here, let me repeat that: They. Are. Going. To. Be. Angry. And you know, saying, just "don't be angry, anger is toxic" isn't helpful. Just stop being angry! Just get over it! Just ignore the drek about how you're a lying golddigger and how you're just a victim (which is a bad, bad thing, apparently). This sort of finger-wagging actually stokes the anger that you all freak out over. Which is toxic, and since the forgiveness movement folks would like us to know that really, they care about the abused oh so very much, one would think they would speak out for, oh, I don't know--maybe JUSTICE for the people who were abused? Jeez. Just a thought. But no! We'll just wag our fingers at those who were abused, tell them that they will never be whole until they forgive, that they will hurt their own kids if they continue to be angry (just shut off the anger why don't you?), tell them that being angry is bad, and then continue to stoke their anger by demonizing them, whining about the organization that is in their corner (VOTF) and the organization they created themselves (SNAP) and then insist that someone abusing a child "just" one time (ahem, that we know of) can be returned to his position (which, hello, is what happened before and what enabled these priests to abuse all of these kids). If the Church owned up to its mistakes on its own, if the likes of Sister D'Arienzo stood up for the victims of the abuse and insisted on justice for them, if Sister D'Arienzo didn't minimize what happened by blathering on about "mitigating factors" I could respect the idea, though not agree with it (I've seen too many people browbeaten into forgiving and it did more harm than good). However, I do not think D'Arienzo or the Church members who endorse her rhetoric are acting in good faith. On one hand she insists that forgiveness doesn't mean that the perp escapes punishment or accountability, yet later she would have us allow that very thing


The latest from america

It’s been 220 years since the religion card was played so bigly in an American presidential campaign.
Every conversation my mother and I had about religion drifted into an argument about Pope Francis. Being unable to talk about God with the person who gave me my faith as she lay dying was agonizing.
Mike LewisAugust 13, 2020
“It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs,” Jesus told her. Yet she is not repelled by his parable. She engages it.
Terrance KleinAugust 12, 2020
Catholic composer David Haas is shown in a concert at the Ateneo de Manila University in Quezon City, Philippines, in this 2016 photo. (CNS photo/Titopao, CC BY-SA 4.0)
Mr. Haas has denied any wrongdoing, calling the accusations “false, reckless and offensive.”