Saturday, May 12, 2012

Fr. Tom Reese on Need for Preferential Option for Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse

Fr. Tom Reese of Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown, former editor of America magazine, has just made an outstanding address to the Clergy Abuse Conference at Santa Clara University.  America's "In All Things" blog has helpfully made the text of the address available online.

There is a great deal that could be said about this address, but I think that rather than hashing through what Fr. Reese says, point by point, I'd hope to direct readers to the address itself, and encourage you to read it.  It's fairly brief, admirably to the point, not highfalutin' in its language.  It's, in other words, as close to perfection as I can imagine a statement by a Catholic clergyman on this serious wound that is deeply harming the Catholic church can be.

There is one point that leaps out at me.  Reese lists a set of steps that the Catholic church can and should take to deal with the "unfinished business" of the abuse crisis.  And here's the point at the top of the list, in his words: 

First, I think the church—and by church I mean both the clergy and the people of God—needs to re-envision its attitude toward the survivors of sexual abuse. In Latin America, liberation theologians developed the concept of the preferential option for the poor. The American Catholic Church needs to embrace a preferential option for the survivors of sexual abuse. 

Fr. Reese is, it seems to me, absolutely correct here.  And it takes a certain amount of courage to make this obvious point: American Catholics need to apply a preferential option to our brothers and sisters who  suffered sexual abuse by Catholic religious authority figures when they were minors.  We need, as he says, to stop looking at our brother and sister Catholics who have experienced abuse as problems to be dealt with, and learn to know them as our teachers, as people offering the Catholic church one of the most valuable gifts being offered to it today.

To me, this seems, as I just said, an obvious point, and it has shocked me--and driven home to me how badly catechized a large percentage of American Catholics are--that many American Catholics have behaved in precisely the opposite fashion.  They've ridiculed, heaped blame on, taunted, excluded brother and sister Catholics who come forward to report sexual abuse by clergy or other trusted religious authority figures when they were children.

What space inside us can harbor such potential for ridicule, blame, taunts, and exclusion of those who are already suffering from totally unmerited childhood trauma, I can't quite figure out.  Whatever the name of the space, though, good catechesis ought to be finding it out, addressing it, and bringing light and healing to these dark places inside Catholics capable of such ugliness towards their fellow human beings.

(Hint: I think the dark space is the same dark space from which the ugly homophobia that pours out of many Catholic hearts proceeds.  Even now, even in 2012, even all these years down the road from Vatican II and higher education for many lay Catholics, it's possible to read on one Catholic blog after another in recent days, as the president's support for gay marriage is discussed, statements about how God has sent AIDS as a plague to punish gays.  About how gays molest children--when all credible scientific studies show that well over 90% of cases of molestation of children in the U.S. involve adult males sexually abusing female minors, usually within the family circle.)

Fr. Reese is courageous to make the very obvious point that a preferential option for the abused should be at the very top of our agenda of unfinished business in American Catholicism for this reason, too: he must know that in pointing to the provenance of the phrase "preferential option" in liberation theology and in reminding us of the powerful things liberation theology has to teach us, he's running right up against the will of the current pope.  Who, along with the previous pope John Paul II, has done everything possible to destroy that important theological movement that has struggled mightily to lift up the downtrodden and defend the weak.

I can see from this lecture why the Vatican yanked Tom Reese as editor of America.  Having such a sober, centered, well-grounded and thoughtful truth-teller in our midst--in the midst of the power structures of the Catholic church: it's too big of a threat, when protecting unjust power and authority is the central concern.  Silencing people like this is the route John Paul II and his successor Benedict have preferred to take.

To the great harm of the entire church.

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