Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Survivors of Clerical Abuse: The Path to Church Reform in the 21st Century

As with some of my previous postings, today's posting is an edited version of a contribution of mine on the blog cafe of the journal National Catholic Reporter at In that posting, I was responding to a comment of someone else partner that I interpreted as diminishing the significance of first-hand accounts of survivors of clerical sexual abuse.

Since I have been blogging about the recent visit of Pope Benedict to the U.S. and about the abuse crisis in the Catholic church, I think it's important to post my NCR reflections on this blog. I want to do so because I have become convinced, as has Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, that the future viability of the Catholic church depends on its willingness--on our willingness--to listen carefully to painful stories, to the testimony, of survivors of clerical abuse.

I agree wholeheartedly with Bishop Robinson when he notes, “If a better church one day emerges from this crisis, it is they alone who must take the credit for creating it” (see below for the full citation). I agree with him that the heart-wrenching testimony of survivors of clerical sexual abuse is a gift to the entire church, an opportunity for the church to reform itself and do things quite differently in the future.

As I have stated previously on this blog, in my view, the Catholic church stands in need of reform at present more than at any time in its history since the Reformation. What we have learned since 2002 about the widespread abuse of children by clergy, about the cover-up of this abuse from the very top of the church throughout the entire church, about the hidden pay-offs and furtive transfer of pedophile priests from place to place, and about the unwillingness of many bishops to exercise minimal pastoral responsibility by meeting with survivors of abuse, hearing their stories, and seeking healing for their wounds: all of this indicates a church in radical need of reform.

The reform needed is a reform in the very heart of the church, in how we do business. It is a reform that must address how power is allocated and used in the Catholic church (and in other churches as well, since the churches form an interdependent web, and apologists for the status quo in one Christian communion reinforce and ally with similar apologists in other communions). Survivors have a unique gift to bring us, in pointing to the depths of the church's need for reform, and the path to reform.

Here's an edited version of what I wrote on the NCR blog a day ago:

"M., I’ve been pondering what you wrote above in light of the re-opening of the question of the abuse crisis by Benedict on his visit to the U.S. I'm especially troubled by the following statement: 'Whatever wrongs one experienced [in my family as I was growing up], one was expected to ignore them and focus on achieving something positive.'

I could hear quite a few Catholics saying this to many of us who are now alienated from the church, due to dismal failures on the part of its pastors. I could (and have) heard Catholics saying something of this sort to survivors of clerical sexual abuse.

I honor your intent to find your own spiritual path, in which you claim self-worth by refusing to permit others to have power over you. I understand your claim that complaining of the harm others have done to you can be a way of giving those others power over you. I think it is important that you root your reflections in your family’s experience during World War II.

Nevertheless, something in your approach troubles me, if your approach is applied as a rule of thumb for how all others who have experienced injustice ought to behave. I’ve just finished reading Bishop Geoffrey Robinson’s powerful new book Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church (Dublin: Columba, 2007). It speaks clearly and compassionately to those who have experienced abuse by pastors and church authorities—-in particular, those who have experienced clerical sexual abuse.

Robinson notes that that he himself was abused as a boy—-though not by a priest or a family member; rather, a stranger molested him. So he speaks out of personal experience, to a certain extent.

I find what Robinson says illuminating. He notes that those who have experienced abuse by clerics and who speak out are often told immediately to forgive. Robinson notes a number of problems with this attempt to move survivors to a forgiveness that is precipitous (pp. 220-221). He notes that there is such a thing as a forgiveness given too early, which bandages and hides a wound that is not yet healed and will continue to fester (p. 222).

Robinson places his reflections in the context of an anthropology that sees human beings as meaning-makers. As he notes, human beings build up fragile systems of meaning composed 'of the many tiny fragments of their lived experience, the many loves, small and great, of their lives' (p. 217).

Abuse by a pastoral authority figure disrupts a human being’s sense of meaning (and thus her sense of self-worth, her very sense of personhood) at a deep level, because it reaches into the very heart of the meaning system out of which a person lives: 'Sexual abuse is a bulldozer gouging a road through this fragile ecosystem of love and meaning that a person has been painfully constructing' (p. 217).

Robinson notes that, because everyone in a church community is involved in a similar quest to create meaning systems, an abuser who speaks out and tells the story of his abuse can be resented and even targeted by other members of the Christian community. At worst, other church members tell the whistle-blower either overtly or in other more subtle ways to get lost, to disappear, to stop speaking out and raising a ruckus. When church authorities appear to echo the same message, it can seem to the survivor as if she is being expelled by the entire Christian community.

Paths to healing differ from individual to individual (pp. 219-220). Speaking from his pastoral experience, Robinson argues that no one should dictate how a particular person’s healing should occur, or tell a person not to feel pain and anger or to speak of these emotions.

Robinson notes that anger plays a positive role in the experience of the abused: 'To think of the abuse and not feel angry is simply not an option. When memory of sexual abuse comes to mind, the anger that is spontaneously felt is in fact positively good and contributes to a sense of meaning because it is part of the loving of oneself. The anger is a defensive reaction, an affirmation of oneself and one’s own dignity, an instinctive statement that what happened was wrong, that I (the victim) am worth more than that' (p. 221).

Finally, Robinson makes a brilliant point about survivors of abuse who muster the courage to speak out, knowing that they risk the probability of being vilified by the church community within which their abuse took place. Robinson notes, that in speaking out courageously at the risk of being vilified and further excluded, survivors offer the church a precious gift.

He states, 'There is another forgiveness that is essential. Communities must forgive, in the literal sense of ‘give themselves for’, victims who have disturbed their comfort and meaning-making by speaking out about their abuse. Within the Catholic Church I must accept that, if no victims had come forward, nothing would have changed. We must learn to be positively grateful to victims for disturbing us. If we feel that we have lost some meaning, it was a false meaning, and their revelation has opened the way to a fuller and more rewarding meaning' (p. 225).

Robinson says that listening to victims of clerical sexual abuse is the most profound spiritual gift he has received in the last 25 years. He concludes, 'If a better church one day emerges from this crisis, it is they alone who must take the credit for creating it' (p. 225).

This approach seems to me entirely consistent with Benedict's choice to meet with survivors of clerical sexual abuse. The healing needed in the abuse situation is not merely the healing of individual lives (though God knows that is needed, and no one should consider it a luxury).

It's also the healing of a whole institution. And that won't take place if we tell those who have experienced abuse to suck it up, stiffen their spines, and adopt good old American can-do stoicism. Nobody can better tell the church how to find healing than those who have been pushed to the margins by clerical abuse. Their voices are gifts to all of us. We need to acknowledge the very serious suffering of those who have been abused by pastoral authority figures, and who have had the abuse compounded by brothers and sisters in Christ who then blame them for beginning their healing process by speaking out."

If Benedict is serious about dealing transparently and with full accountability for the abuse crisis in the American Catholic church, he will urge the American bishops immediately to set up a nationwide truth-disclosing commission. That commission will invite to the table every survivor of clerical sexual abuse who can be found--as well as all Catholics who have experienced abuse of any sort from pastors.

After listening and dialogue, the commission would then begin deliberating about how to heal the wounds such a process would disclose. They are enormous. They will be healed only when new paradigms of power as service are incorporated into the clerical life of the church.

And, since I have noted above that all the churches form an interdependent web in which apologists for the status quo reinforce and ally with each other across denominational lines, I want to point to a parallel case to add further illustration to my point: if the United Methodist Church wants to be credible when it tells society at large that it stands for mercy in situations of social pain, the UMC will use its current General Conference to engage in church-wide listening to those who have experienced unwelcome or exclusion by Methodist ministers and Methodist institutions.

Such a church-wide listening process would find ways to link justice and mercy, such that the church's claim to stand for mercy would have credibility, because it is rooted in justice.

Do I expect the UMC to do this at its General Conference? No.

Do I expect Benedict to urge the American bishops to form a nationwide truth-telling commission? No, I don't.

Nonetheless, I continue to live in hope. Hagia Sophia is full of whimsical surprises, and occasionally the voices of those who keep on keeping on find their way to the ears and hearts of the power mongers at the center of institutional power.

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