The Scandal of Sexual Abuse: A Moment of Radical Conversion for the Church

In the last few weeks, the ongoing scandal of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church has once again become front page news, with the publication of accusations against Theodore McCarrick, and the release of the report of the Pennsylvania grand jury investigation into sexual abuse in the dioceses of that state.

I have recently become the associate to the provincial superior of the Jesuits of Canada. In that new role, it is my responsibility to review and supervise the policies and practices of our community for the protection of vulnerable persons. But for the last fifteen years, in my work as a theologian, I was tasked with preparing young men and women for ordained and lay ecclesial ministry. In that context, I trained these future ministers to conduct themselves professionally, to respect boundaries, and to recognize their power in a ministry relationship so as to exercise fiduciary care for the other. I have made sure that they understand their responsibilities to report abuse to the proper civil and ecclesial authorities. My students know what they need to do to exercise good self-care, and they can recognize in themselves the need for supervision in difficult situations.

My students, when they became aware of the magnitude of the reality of sex abuse in the Church, would often have one of three responses that got in the way of their ability to minister with freedom in the community: anger at the institutional Church; an uncomfortable but very real sense that the deeper ecclesial realities of the people of God and the mystical body ought to be defended or protected from the scandal (so as to preserve the faith of believers); or a sense of paralysis and powerlessness that left them depressed.

Each of these reactions had some merit. Anger about injustice and oppression is good. Desiring to protect the faith of the little ones is good. Powerlessness can open us up to our need for God. But anger about injustice can become anger at another that shades into revenge. As we have seen too often, desire to protect the faith easily becomes complicity in covering up evil. Powerlessness too easily becomes quiet despair that paralyzes; often, people who experience this despair walk away from the Church. Because my students were preparing for leadership in the Church, these reactions often pushed them into a place of spiritual desolation: how can I feel called by God to serve in this institution? How can this call be from God at all?

The language of the Vatican’s statement in response to the report of the Pennsylvania grand jury investigation is, it seems to me, very important. “Shame and sorrow” are two of the three responses Saint Ignatius seeks to enable in us at the beginning of the First Week of the Spiritual Exercises. As the First Week of the Exercises begins, Ignatius invites us to ask for “confusion, shame, and sorrow” before our personal history of sin and its place in the larger history of sin of the world. I will articulate each of these things in personal terms first, as Ignatius presents them, before saying something about a communal experience of the first week.

Confusion is that experience I have before the utter absurdity and incomprehensibility of sin and evil; it is the interior affective grasp that it is completely unintelligible that I have done this thing to the innocent or to the one I love.

Shame is the interior movement or emotion that grasps my responsibility for or complicity in the evil that has been done, and reveals that responsibility or complicity to me.

Sorrow grieves the harm done; it is motivated by genuine love, and helps that love come to the surface. It is, in that sense, a release from the influence of sin in my life.

Ignatius’ purpose is not that we should wallow in these emotions and interior movements; nor does he suggest that we try to analyze in great detail the dynamics of our sinning (at least not at first). Instead, we are invited to make these experiences the springboard from which we can experience our need for Christ’s grace; they break us open to see, hear, and taste what Christ has already done and what he is already labouring even now to do for our freedom, healing, and reconciliation. Because it is only then that we can truly welcome and be transformed by the love Christ shows us, and in the awareness of that love cry out with wonder and gratitude (how is it that I have been preserved from death even as I was choosing my own destruction….).

It is only within this experience of freedom and gratitude, received and appropriated, that we can begin then to make choices about changing the patterns in our lives that lead to sin. This is because it is only when we have an awareness and experiential knowledge of what God is doing, and how God is labouring in us, that we can make choices that collaborate with that grace, that incarnate and make specific and concrete the love that does justice.

So much for the personal experience Ignatius fosters in the text of the Exercises. I have come to believe, and I have taught in my Ignatian Foundations for Mission and Ministry course, that there is an analogous experience for us in the face of instances of a great institutional evil like the scandal of sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable persons in the Church.

Working with my students in class, I encouraged them to look in prayer under their anger, fear, and despair about the sex abuse scandal to see if perhaps they could discover and experience the “confusion, shame, and sorrow” that is inevitably there. Asking for the grace to face the absurdity and monstrosity of the evil done, to acknowledge that to some extent their place of privilege was the result of the cover-ups, and to really grieve the evil done to the victims, restored them to a place of healing and reconciliation and brought their initial desire to serve out of love for God and neighbour back to the surface. I then would ask them to pray with their own positive experiences of grace in the Church, and to notice that Christ and the Spirit have continued to labour in the Church for the Church’s healing and reconciliation, that the bringing of the scandals into the light was part of that labouring, and that they could join Christ and the Spirit and become contributors to God’s solution to the evil in the Church. This was truly liberating for them, and it put them in a place of genuine discernment in the face of these evils, as opposed to a kind of Pelagian or semi-Pelagian “we have to fix this ourselves” that makes no reference to God’s action.

I believe that Pope Francis is modelling his own growing awareness that we are in a “First Week” moment in the Church, and that he is challenging bishops, cardinals, priests, and ecclesial leaders of all kinds to allow themselves to enter into that first week dynamic that opens us up to confusion, shame, and sorrow; that then moves us to grasp that, in spite of our sin and complicity, God has been labouring in the Church to bring about healing and reconciliation; and that issues forth in the cry of wonder at God’s goodness that empowers us to make specific reforms that collaborate with God’s grace.

I believe that bishops and others in authority will have to resign. It is also obvious that there will need to be profound structural reforms that get at the foundations of clericalism. It is especially important that this moment of empowerment of the laity not be lost. But what motivates the resignations, the manner and kinds of reforms we need, must be the fruit of what God is already doing. What we need are new ways of being the Body of Christ that incarnate the love that does justice in the face of evil, that are the fruits of a deep communal conversion that heals, reconciles, and liberates us.

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