Tuesday, September 02, 2008

The Quality of Mercy

Amid the relative quiet of August, an America lead-article on forgiving abusive priests as a necessary "key to healing" touched a sizable nerve....
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?

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....

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....

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....

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.
...and in response to the intense reactions the piece generated, its author -- Sister of Mercy Camille D'Arienzo -- gave an in-depth Q&A in Sunday's editions of the Boston Globe:
IDEAS: Why discuss forgiveness for sexual abusers?

D'ARIENZO: I have been troubled by the failure of the church and the broader community to even suggest that there is redemption for those who have sinned in any capacity and who have repented. So into the silence, after many years of thinking and praying, and knowing that no matter what I say my words will be misinterpreted, I thought someone has got to start this conversation going. And so, I did.

IDEAS: Have you long been interested in forgiveness?

D'ARIENZO: Absolutely. I've had enough of hurt in my own life, and I have witnessed enough in my very long life, to know that as long as we hold on to the thing that has hurt us, and hatred for the person who has perpetrated, that we remain to some degree in the grasp of the evil that we should escape.

IDEAS: Why did you want to wade into this subject? You must have known it was a bit of a thicket.

D'ARIENZO: Because I feel that the truth will set us free. And we are so enslaved by impotence and rage and misunderstanding and silence. I don't see anywhere that the official ecclesiastical church is suggesting any sort of policies or any sort of responsibility of the entire community, not just the victims, to bring about some sort of healing, and to include in the mix the suggestion that forgiveness may be one of the ways that at least some of the people who are so damaged on both sides of the equation may be able to live fuller lives. Forgiveness sucks the hatred out of the situation and allows us to go forward, that's what I have been trying to say, not because I am the smartest one, but maybe because I am the one in the providence of God who at this moment feels called upon to break the silence.

IDEAS: How do you sense the lack of forgiveness?

D'ARIENZO: I don't hear anyone saying that people involved in this particular tragedy either deserve forgiveness or are called to extend it. And I am a member of this church. I have loved it my whole life. I have given my life to this church. I'm not young - I'm 75 years old, and I have spent my life. And if I were to see a person starving, I would bring food. I think the starvation is for encouragement for compassion and mercy....

IDEAS: What is your hope for what your essay will accomplish?

D'ARIENZO: I'm hoping that the conversation that I started will improve and will draw on deeper wisdom than I have to offer and that somehow the larger community will engage in creating a climate where forgiveness can flourish, where those who have been harmed by sexual abuse may find solace and relief, and where those who have perpetrated the abuse will be brought to repentance, and I suspect many of them already have, and will be given another chance at continuing respectable lives.

IDEAS: And how has the reaction affected you?

D'ARIENZO: I'm exhausted. It has been such an intense experience. Somewhere in my article I say it's like entering a surgical ward - you don't want to hurt anything, you don't want to touch anything. But you know you've got to do something, because not to do it is to be somehow dishonest or unfaithful to what we believe as a church, as a human family.