Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Ongoing Challenge of Dealing with Child Abuse in the Catholic Church: Testimony of Bishop Geoffrey Robinson

As I offer my ten notes about the problem of child abuse and Jerry Slevin's valuable proposal for a U.S. national commission to address this problem, I want to offer as well a reprise of some notes from the powerful and prophetic book of Australian bishop Geoffrey Robinson, Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church: Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus (Dublin: Columba, 2007).  I've blogged about Bishop Robinson's book in the past.

But it strikes me that, with the recent establishment of a royal commission to investigate child abuse (and its cover-up) in Australia, Bishop Robinson's book is timely all over again--and it deserves recognition as a ground-breaking resource that led Australian Catholics and Catholics in many parts of the world to begin looking with new eyes at child abuse in the Catholic church and other institutions.

Here are some valuable lessons Bishop Robinson's book taught me when I read it, which I think are worth remembering all over again as Australia investigates child abuse:

1. Why should Catholics who have ourselves not experienced sexual abuse by clergy care about  those who have had such experiences?

Bishop Robinson's answer to this question: abuse by a religious authority figure disrupts the entire "ecosystem" of love and meaning in the life of a person who experiences such abuse as a minor.  This disruption of love and meaning in one's life can perdure throughout one's entire life.

Bishop Robinson writes,

The systems of meaning that people build up are always fragile, for they are made up of the many tiny fragments of their lived experience, the many loves, small and great, of their 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).

2. What responsibility do Catholic parishes and communities have to those who make the hard choice to go public and tell their stories of childhood abuse by Catholic authority figures?

Bishop Robinson notes that "[w]ithin a church community it is impossible to separate the victim’s relationship with the abuser, with God and the community" (p. 218).  Because the choice of some survivors to speak out disrupts the fragile meaning system of other church members, they are often vilified and told to disappear (pp. 218-9).  When church authorities appear to collude as Catholic communities shun or vilify an abuse survivor who tells her story, it begins to seem as if the entire community is joining in the rejection (ibid.).

3. Why don't Catholics who were abused just get over it and find healing--and stop causing trouble for the rest of us by demanding a hearing?

Bishop Robinson insists that the path to healing is a very individual path.  It differs from individual to individual (pp. 219f).  No one should dictate to someone else how his healing should occur, and no one should tell another person not to feel pain and anger due to childhood abuse, or not to speak about his pain and anger.  

Bishop Robinson writes, 

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).

4. Well, what about forgiveness and love?  Aren't we Christians called to love those who abuse us?

Bishop Robinson argues that there is such a thing as a forgiveness given too early (p. 222).  Like the path to healing, which is very individual for each person, the path to forgiveness is something that should not be dictated by others.  Each person needs to work out her own journey towards forgiveness in her own way. 

Bishop Robinson observes,

Too often victims have been told that that they have a Christian duty to forgive their offender. Apart from the fact that this is an obvious attempt to get victims to resolve the problems caused by offenders, there are other difficulties with this idea, reflecting more general attitudes within the church (pp. 220-1).

As he also notes, forgiveness is reciprocal: if the Catholic community is going to call on anyone who has experienced abuse at the hands of a religious authority figure when he was a child to forgive, then the Catholic community also needs to practice its own form of forgiveness in relation to those who have been abused: he writes, 

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).  

5. But aren't those who talk about being abused by Catholic authority figures when they were children out to get the Catholic church, to shame and smear it and tear it apart?

Bishop Robinson:

If a better church one day emerges from this crisis, it is they alone [i.e., survivors who have mustered the courage to come forward] who must take the credit for creating it (p. 225).  

Bishop Robinson says that listening to victims of clerical sexual abuse is the most profound spiritual gift he has received in the last 25 years of his priestly (and episcopal) ministry.

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