Toward a Gospel witness: Confronting child abuseDANIEL CERE
The Church's response to this evolving crisis has been, at the very least, disturbing.
In Moral Panic: Changing Concepts of the Child Molester in Modern America, historian Philip Jenkins documents a veritable "revolution" in our moral response to child sexual abuse. There was a time when child molesters were brushed off with dismissive smirks and tawdry jokes. However, today, moral horror, not condescending humor, marks the public response to child abuse. Furthermore, in sharp contrast to more traditional patterns of concealment and strict confidentiality, recent social developments have created a climate more disposed to the disclosure of abuse. Jenkins seems to view this growing public indignation with a certain amount of intellectual cynicism, but our heightened moral sensitivity does resonate with what we now know of the deep harm experienced by victims of abuse.
Some maintain the sense of "crisis" is largely manufactured, a product of a media frenzy that taps into deep strains of anti-Catholicism within modern culture. In "How Pedophilia Lost Its Cool," Mary Eberstadt suggests that our hot indignation over pedophilia only began to truly flare up when this long-standing deviance became publicly associated with, and contaminated by, the bad name of "Catholicism." In order to fuel their "hate-fest on the Catholic Church," Eberstadt argues, liberal elites were forced to take up the cause of pedophilia bashing.
There can be no doubt that various forms of anti-Catholicism eagerly consume the ongoing revelations of clerical sex abuse. But an all-too-generous flow of transgressions has been feeding these prejudices. The crisis, with its twin chasms of clerical abuse and episcopal cover-up, now seems to be expanding to global proportions. Recently, the Irish Church was shaken by two major reports documenting histories of criminal sexual abuse, complicity and concealment. Allegations of abuse are breaking out across Europe. In his pastoral letter to Irish Catholics Pope Benedict XVI concluded that the current crisis has "obscured the light of the Gospel to a degree that not even centuries of persecution succeeded in doing" – a stunning assessment of the depth of the ecclesial devastation caused by clerical abuse.
The growing distress over the ecclesial proportions of this crisis may even obscure attention to its dark roots. To some extent, labels like "child abuse" or "clerical abuse" do not adequately communicate the bitter evil inflicted on children. In the Irish Times, Mary Raftery opened her coverage of the "Dublin Report" with brutal images of the brew of sex, sadism and sacrilege that goes under the name of "child abuse" which are too horrific to be repeated. Graphic depictions of abuse shock and horrify, but, like images of genocide, they do force us to confront the actual trauma endured by victims. Whether wielding a sacred object, or in persona Christi, clerical abuse defiles the most profound boundaries of faith, trust, love and intimacy in a child’s life. What is the message of the crucified Christ in the face of such desecrations?
The Church’s response to this evolving crisis has been, at least, disturbing. John Allen argues persuasively that we are in the midst of a major course correction with the papacy of Benedict XVI. On numerous fronts Benedict has pressed for a far more aggressive response to the abuse crisis than his predecessor. In his pastoral letter to Irish Catholics Benedict XVI argues that a post-Vatican II ecclesial culture of lax spirituality, misplaced concern for scandal and reputation, and poor canonical enforcement undermined traditional moral and juridical disciplines (art. 4). He lays blame at the feet of the Irish bishops for "grave errors of judgment" and grievous failures "to apply the long-established norms of canon law to the crime of child abuse" (art. 11). However, the initial response to the letter by victims and commentators has been mixed. Nagging concerns continue to be raised about the Vatican’s role in contributing to a culture of concealment, the minimal outreach to victims of abuse, and an over-reliance on the internal disciplines of canon law.
It seems reasonable to assume that these relentless disclosures will continue to send shock waves through the Church both at the national and international levels. The Canadian Catholic community was recently jolted by the arrest of a bishop hailed as an advocate for abuse victims. On September 10, 2009, the Nova Scotia Supreme Court ratified a massive financial settlement for clerical child abuse victims in Nova Scotia; this "unprecedented" settlement was negotiated by Bishop Raymond Lahey. The decision extended financial compensation to abuse victims, ensured strict public confidentiality regarding the details of the thirty-nine abuse cases, and placed a significant burden on the lay faithful who are expected to share the financial costs of the settlement. According to police allegations, the very bishop who played a critical role in concluding this landmark settlement was, five days later, caught transporting child porn from a foreign country. Bishop Lahey’s trips to countries notorious for child prostitution and his evasive answers triggered concerns by a border agent who ordered a search on his laptop computer. If police allegations prove to be true, it will be a tragic symbol of ecclesial failure: a shepherd called to oversee reconciliation with abuse victims turns out to be plagued with an appetite for pornography dealing in the criminal exploitation of children.
Caught in the middle of the media furor over these allegations are two outstanding leaders in the Canadian Catholic Church today. Archbishop Anthony Mancini is at the center of the storm since Lahey’s diocese has been brought under his jurisdiction. In Ottawa, Canada’s capital, Archbishop Terence Prendergast is dealing with unexpected fallout due to the fact that Lahey was arrested in his diocese and now seeks sanctuary there while his legal proceedings unfold. Both men are gifted leaders. Archbishop Mancini is noted for his exemplary work in pastoral psychology and ministry to priests. He is a bishop who embodies Newman’s motto, always ready to speak "heart to heart." Archbishop Prendergast is a seasoned biblical scholar and a straight-talking dedicated shepherd – the kind of tough, hard-hitting, skilled spiritual captain who inspires confidence in the hockey-hallowing hearts of Canadians. In addition to the respect and admiration that I have for these men, there is friendship. My friendship with Archbishop Mancini goes back decades; few people have had such direct impact on my own religious journey ("trustworthy are blows from a friend," Prov. 27:6). If these exceptional men find themselves frustrated and stuck, spinning their wheels in the mud of our failed ecclesial responses to abuse, it does not bode well.
On October 2, Archbishop Anthony Mancini released a pastoral letter that expressed an agonized cri de coeur over the revelation of Bishop Lahey’s arrest. In some ways, this short meditation carries more emotive charge than the Pope’s longer pastoral text. The archbishop’s letter refers to a silent scream within his heart facing yet another shameful scandal involving the abuse or exploitation of children. In Catholic circles, the "silent scream" is a common code for the evil of abortion: the inaudible cry of the utterly helpless unborn child suddenly invaded by an alien power that rips the infant out of a protective womb. The letter evokes a similar sense of helplessness in the face of a deep-seated evil tearing into the heart of the Church. The Church is once again fatally exposed, wounded and publicly shamed by these unrelenting cases of violated children it purports to protect. When queried by an interviewer about whether he was angry with Bishop Lahey, the archbishop paused and confided in a candid tone of defeat, "No…I’m not sure that I am experiencing anger." He went on to explain that he was experiencing a lot of other emotions, especially shame, "shame for him, and for me, and for all of us who are trying to do the best we can." This sense of shame and discouragement is echoed in the Pope’s letter (art. 10).
In his pastoral letter, Archbishop Mancini expresses the agony that the Church is forced to endure as it is once again shamed by allegations and arrests.
The letter mentions the archbishop’s encounter with Ron Martin, a spokesperson for many abuse victims in Nova Scotia. Ron’s life and his family have been shattered by abuse. His younger brother David committed suicide in 2002 and, in a suicide note, David revealed that he had been abused by Fr. Hugh MacDonald, the same priest who had abused Ron. Both brothers had suffered silently – alone, isolated and exposed – neither aware that the other was sharing the same tragic fate at the hands of the same priest.
During the meeting with Ron, Archbishop Mancini noticed words inscribed on a tapestry that read "be still and know that I am God" – in those words he heard a call to conversion. In his letter he writes: "It is this word which I pray all can receive and reflect upon, a word which calms us down in the storm and refocuses our attention, not on failure, disgrace, disappointment and anger – but on the reality of God experienced, if and when we can stop and be still." How is the Church to respond? The archbishop’s letter suggests that the anxious faithful seek God in the midst of this darkness, recognize the inherently flawed human condition, and draw close to the spiritual wellsprings of their Church for healing, caring, forgiveness and renewal. His words resonate with the personal authenticity and direct honesty that are the stellar qualities of this ecclesial leader. More recently, exhortations have turned to action in the implementation of a major comprehensive code of conduct for his diocese. The pastoral response sounds right and good, but will it provide the necessary evangelical direction and traction for the Church to move forward?
In the meantime, the shamed bishop was roaming the country trying to find haven. A monastery in New Brunswick was approached with a request for asylum, but the local mayor and citizens angrily protested his presence. Finally, Archbishop Prendergast extended shelter to Bishop Lahey as a gesture of "Christian charity," believing it to be "the action that the Lord would want us to take." In 2003 Archbishop Prendergast had presided over the ceremony elevating Lahey to the episcopal office; six years later he was shouldering the burden of receiving his publicly disgraced colleague.
In the light of this Gospel message, some argue that those advocating more aggressive confrontation fall short of authentic Christian charity. For example, the late Fr. John Richard Neuhaus, widely hailed as a champion of Catholic faith, was particularly severe in his condemnation of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ call to tough-minded confrontation:
Strong words of condemnation for those who would dare to condemn. But, in face of child abuse, should Catholics be always ready to "welcome sinners and eat with them," or to see ourselves in the ones who recognize our sinfulness and walk away? Is this the fitting Gospel response? The faithful share the sense that "enough is enough," but they desperately want abuse to be confronted and brought to an end. Episcopal responses plead for mercy, forgiveness and renewal of faith; they warn that righteous anger, while understandable, fails to take up the Gospel call to reconciliation. That kind of pastoral advice is usually spot on. But why do so many priests and laity instinctively feel that, in this case, it’s somehow off the mark?
Oddly, or perhaps providentially, on the very day (October 2) that Archbishop Mancini published his pastoral letter, the appointed Gospel reading happened to be Matthew 18. This is the Gospel reading that speaks directly to the scandal of harming children. However, this passage is rarely turned to or reflected upon in our search for ecclesial direction in this very sensitive area. Even the Pope’s lengthy pastoral letter on clerical child abuse makes no mention of this text.
Does the amputated liturgical version of Matthew 18 mirror an amputated ecclesial response to abuse, a response that omits core features of the biblical message? Two elements stand out in the unedited version. First, Jesus’ evangelical anger. No protection, no dialogue, no comforting words, are offered to those who abuse children. They have violated a profoundly sacred trust; in violating the trust of children they have violated Christ himself. Jesus exhorts his disciples to welcome the kingdom as a little child; the abuser preys upon that vulnerability. The text uses a highly charged word (skandalon) to characterize the profound harm caused by the abuse of children. In the Bible skandalon refers not only to the downfall of the child, but to the destruction of the foundations of faith. The faith and trust of these children have been deliberately assaulted, exploited, abused, and often mortally wounded.
Jesus’ response to those who are the cause of harm to children is uncharacteristically hard-hitting and unrelenting. Catholic pundits and authorities worry whether policies of mandatory reporting to civil authorities or zero tolerance are going too far. But in this passage, Jesus talks of millstones and drowning in the sea, and ends with lamentations and somber curses: "Woe to the world because of these scandals…woe to that man by whom these scandals come…. If your eye is the cause of scandal, pluck it out and cast it from you" (18:7-9).
Second, Jesus exhorts the Church to turn in unconditional commitment toward the victim. The Pope’s letter expressed deep sorrow to victims of abuse and exhorts them not to lose hope, but to return to Christ and to the Church "to find reconciliation, deep inner healing and peace" (art. 6). Matt. 18:12-14 places emphasis on the responsibility of shepherds to seek out the little one that they have failed to protect. Those harmed by abuse must not be viewed as damaged goods that must be dealt with so that the Church can be done with this mess and begin to move on. Formal apologies, compensation and penalties meet the demands of civil justice, but Jesus requires more. He instructs the shepherd to leave the flock (the ninety-nine) in order to seek out the little one who has been harmed, driven away and abandoned (18:12-14). Those harmed by abuse become critical to the mission of the Church as it strives to move forward.
What are we to make of this response? Jesus does protect the adulteress from the lethal judgment of her accusers; he does embrace the repentant prostitute; he does challenge self-righteous Pharisees who claim to be without sin. Indeed, he responds as a caring physician to most forms of sexual disorder and sin. But when it comes to the abuse of children there is no talk of our common sinfulness. There is no suggestion that we identify with the sinner and, as it were, walk away. There are no warnings against stone-throwing, only dire threats of millstones. When Jesus confronts harm to children, the gravity of his message seems to make even tough-talk of zero-tolerance and mandatory reporting pale in comparison. And he’s far from satisfied with an "apologize, compensate and move on" response to those who have been harmed.
Doesn’t all this seem rather severe and unbalanced? Obviously, one should extend a healing hand to the victim. But shouldn’t the Church also find a way to reach out in empathy and forgiveness to the abuser? Shouldn’t we be striving for reconciliation between the abuser, the community and the abused? But what are we to make of this singular, and somewhat jarring, Gospel warning?
Turning to current psychological gurus for guidance through these difficulties is fraught with danger, especially when, as some argue, episcopal over-reliance on psychoanalytical experts may have contributed to a flawed culture of ecclesial compliance. The eminent Swiss psychologist, Anne Miller, has been particularly severe in exposing and denouncing her own profession’s dismal failure to confront child abuse. Miller argues that traditional psychoanalytical approaches shifted attention away from the harm done to children in order to focus their attention on the psycho-sexual struggles of adults. In contrast, she advocates an "enlightened witness" stance that is attentive to the victim and resolutely confronts the trauma of abuse. On one level, at least, this enlightened witness approach seems to fit with Jesus’ evangelical witness.
This struggle for freedom and healing is deeply complicated by the fact that the familial or spiritual relationships around the victim have been twisted and corrupted by the abuser. Close relationships have been perverted into a "poisonous" nexus of trust exploited by the abuser in order to facilitate the abuse. The trusted friends, authorities, colleagues and family members around both the abuser and the child need to understand that they too have been groomed and co-opted as unwitting "collaborators" in the abuse.
Miller fully recognizes that the abuser suffers with his own demons, often caused by abuse in his own childhood. However, the abuser as an adult has also made a tragic choice to inflict his demons on other children, rather than seeking help to confront them. The abuser succumbs to the evil that plagues his soul and allows his ministry and relationships to be drawn into its service.
Those caught in these webs of collaboration cannot help the abuser or the child by pressing for mutual understanding, forgiveness and reconciliation, and the "enlightened witness," says Miller, will not attempt that. Rather he or she must assist the victim in understanding and exposing the abuse and the abuser to the light of day. The communal veil of silence cloaking the abuse, a silence that enters into the very heart of the child, must be lifted. Adults around the child typically strive to reduce distress by adopting various strategies of avoidance when confronted with the trauma of abuse. The enlightened witness adopts a strategy of "approach" rather than "avoidance" and seeks "cognitive and emotional apprehension" of the actual trauma suffered by the child. The witness is there to assist the victim in driving the stake of truth into the "poisonous pedagogy" of abuse and into the nexus of relationships that sustained the abuse. Attempting to maintain such relationships in a warm-hearted concern for reconciliation and forgiveness may reach out to the abuser and his unwitting collaborators, but only at the tragic cost of continuing to sustain the very weapon used to inflict abuse upon the child.
The "evangelical witness," for his part, knows that the abuser of children is not beyond any possibility of redemption by the saving grace of God. But the evangelical witness, on the authority of Christ himself, is also "enlightened" in Miller’s sense. He will have nothing to do with any forms of collaboration that only perpetuate the culture of harm to children. Healing for the victim, and repentance and healing for the abuser, must take a decisively different path.
Does this mean that the Church must be ready to disrupt, even sever, the collaborative nexus of relationships and attachments that have contributed to abuse of children? Yes, it does. Does this mean that bishops, clergy and laity must together take an unequivocal stance on the side of the victim and turn against abuse with clear and firm judgment? Yes. Does this mean that the Church must be far more aggressive and vigilant in its response to signals of potential threats to children? Yes, and yes again. It may seem like a stunning blow to the child abuser, but it is delivered with no less an authority than that of Jesus himself.
Matthew 18 calls for the Church to be a safe, secure place for children, but a highly unsafe place for abusers. It calls for an ecclesial culture that is vigilant. Troubling clues and improprieties typically clutter the lives of those drawn to the sexual exploitation of children. However, those drawn into the abuser’s webs of trust and collaboration are tempted to turn a blind eye and retreat from confrontation. Children require strong gatekeepers. The Pope’s letter on abuse was signed on the solemnity of St. Joseph. In Matthew’s Gospel, Joseph’s steady paternal vigilance is decisive in protecting the child Jesus from harm by those in authority. That kind of watchfulness was displayed by the border agent who reacted immediately to the seemingly insignificant, but troubling, signals evident in Bishop Lahey’s evasive responses and his vacation itineraries. Whatever the outcome of the case, this young woman responded with the vigilance of St. Joseph, a vigilance that has been sadly lacking among clergy and laity with tragic consequences for too many children. Codes and protocols will help to clarify boundaries, but we will still require the courage to confront.
Does the Gospel witness suggest a knee-jerk "blame the bishops" response to the evil of child abuse? No, it cuts deeper. Child abuse typically is the result of failure by many of the key players in the life of the child. Anne-Marie McAlinden, a noted British expert on sexual abuse, points out that the grooming strategies of abusers not only target the child, but all the responsible familial and institutional gatekeepers around the child. The child becomes isolated and exposed because the key adults around the child have been groomed to let their guard down and allow a trusted adult to foster inappropriate patterns of intimacy with the child. Catholic parents too need to exercise a renewed vigilance: to ask God’s help to discern rightly and confront fearlessly situations in which their son or daughter could be a target of abuse, knowing they are the first teachers and protectors of their children.
Should the Gospel witness be viewed as an exhortation to foster a culture of fear and suspicion? No, in fact such responses could only deepen the malaise. Sexual abuse is a grotesque counterfeit of intimacy that slithers into those spaces devoid of real friendship in Christ. But fraternal communion requires a shepherding that is ever caring, alert and vigilant. And, if we have learned anything, nothing can shatter Christian communion more decisively than the violation of a child’s most intimate trust. The damage strikes at the intimate core of a child’s body and soul, and seems to ripple out in ever-widening circles. Jesus understood this. Accordingly, his Gospel call "to receive" children into the communion of the faithful was qualified by a far sterner warning to shepherds, both lay and clerical, to watch over and protect these little ones. He warns his disciples not to neglect these little ones, "for I tell you that their angels in heaven are continually in the presence of my Father in heaven" (Matt. 18: 10).
The slow, unrelenting mudslide of abuse has caused untold damage to the lives of too many children. This millstone is causing deep devastation to the Church – undermining faith, damaging the public credibility of its leadership, and bankrupting institutional assets and finances. It even strikes at the heart of one of the core missions in John Paul II’s historic papacy. John Paul II recognized that sexuality was a site of profound turmoil in contemporary culture, and he struggled valiantly to chart a new pathway forward. Yet, how much of the grace-filled innocence of his theology of the body and spousal mysticism now lies buried beneath the "filth," to use Benedict’s descriptor, of clerical sexual abuse?
National episcopal conferences have struggled to respond by generating various guidelines, codes, protocols and charters for bishops to implement in their dioceses, if they wish. Yet, even a seasoned canon lawyer like Ladislas Orsy, S.J. wonders whether these legal and institutional changes, necessary as they are in the ongoing battle against abuse, will be sufficient. Procedures, penalties and prevention are required, but Fr. Orsy senses the need for something more.
The call to be still before God is a call to conversion: it is a call to silence stubbornly ingrained patterns of response that bear little or no fruit, a call to hear a new message, to find new paths forward. In this area, the Church, both lay and clerical, is called to temper its deep pastoral sensitivities for sinners with a still deeper faithfulness to the Savior and to the children harmed and exiled by abuse. To hear the Gospel is to know that that sexual abuse is an intimate terrorism that strikes into the heart of the vulnerable. Confronting harm to children, the proper pastoral response of the shepherd is not to be the long-suffering pastor of human sinfulness, lenient, accepting, always there to offer soft sanctuary for tortured souls, and counseling Christian patience to the confused faithful. The proper response is to be the evangelical warrior vigilant and unwavering in defense of the little ones. And, when abuses do occur, as Jesus warns they will, the shepherd is called to seek and find, not pull back from, those harmed and exiled. We cannot move forward without them. To be still and know that God is God is to "know" that "it is not the will of my Father in heaven that even one of these little ones should perish" (Matt.18:14).
 Philip Jenkins, Moral Panic: Changing Concepts of the Child Molester in Modern America (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998).
 Mary Eberstadt, "How Pedophilia Lost its Cool," First Things, December 2009.
 Report by Commission of Investigation into the handling by Church and State authorities of allegations and suspicions of child abuse against clerics of the Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin (2009); Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (2009).
 Benedict XVI, "Pastoral Letter of the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI to the Catholics of Ireland," March 19, 2010.
 Leon Podles provides one of the most detailed discussions of cases of criminal clerical abuse in Sacrilege: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church (Crosslands Press, 2007).
 John Allen, "Will Ratzinger’s Past Trump Benedict’s Present?" National Catholic Reporter, March 17, 2010.
 Stephen Maher, "Ex-N.S. Bishop Gets Bail on Child Porn Charges," The Chronicle Herald, October 1, 2009.
 Steve Rennie, "Sexual Images of Boys as Young as Eight on Bishop’s Laptop," The Canadian Press, October 8, 2009.
 Bishop Lahey was expected to enter his plea on January 13, but there have been a series of delays in the proceedings.
 Archbishop Anthony Mancini, "Letter to the Roman Catholic Faithful of Nova Scotia," October 2, 2009.
 "Responsible Ministry and Safe Environment Protocol," Archdiocese of Halifax, February 2010.
 Rob Linke, "Former Bishop’s Arrest Another Test of Faith for Catholics," October 3, 2009.
 Richard John Neuhaus, "Scandal Time III," First Things, August/September 2002.
 See Alice Miller, Thou Shalt Not be Aware: Society’s Betrayal of the Child (New York: Meridian, 1984); Breaking Down the Walls of Silence (New York: Penguin, 1991). I was introduced to the work of Alice Miller by way of an insightful lecture on sexuality and identity delivered a decade ago by Archbishop Mancini. His evolving approach to pastoral psychology was, in part, shaped by a dialogue with Miller’s work. My appeal to the work of Alice Miller should not be taken as a general endorsement of her psychoanalytical approach – an endorsement that would be well beyond my competence to make. However, Miller did see an early draft of this paper and signaled her basic agreement with the employment of her work.
 For a discussion of adult coping mechanisms see: Hébert, M., Daigneault, I., Collin-Vézina, D., et Cyr, M., "Factors Linked to Distress in Mothers of Children Disclosing Sexual Abuse," Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 195 (2007): 805-811, esp., p.809.
 Anne-Marie McAlindon, "‘Setting ’Em Up’: Personal, Familial and Institutional Grooming in the Sexual Abuse of Children," Social and Legal Studies 15 (2006) 339-362.
 For the U.S. national episcopal conference response: Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2005); Ireland’s episcopal conference: Child Sexual Abuse: Framework for a Church Response (Irish Catholic Bishops’ Advisory Committee on Child Sexual Abuse by Priests and Religious, 1996); Canadian episcopal conference: From Pain to Hope, (Report from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops Ad Hoc Committee on Child Sexual Abuse, 1992); also, see the CCCB update, "Orientations issued by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops for updating a diocesan protocol for the prevention of the sexual abuse of minors and the pastoral response to complaints regarding abuse," (CCCB, 2007).
 See Ladislas Orsy, "Bishops’ Norms: Commentary and Evaluation," Boston College Law Review 44 (2003) 999-1030.
Daniel Cere. "Toward a Gospel witness: Confronting child abuse." Homiletic & Pastoral Review (May, 2010).
Reprinted with permission of the author and Homiletic & Pastoral Review.
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