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Young adults gathered on the steps of the Cathedral of St. Paul, Minn., Aug. 20 during a vigil called "Evening Prayer for the Survivors of Clerical Abuse and the Healing of the Church." CNS photo/Dave Hrbacek, The Catholic Spirit

Questioning Faith: The truth will make us agents of healing

  • August 31, 2018

As a psychotherapist, I work with people harmed by abuse: abusers who “own” it, and who don’t; falsely-accused people; and many, many people from many walks of life who have been abused.  

I can bear witness to its prevalence in society at large, the great suffering it causes and the terrible destruction it wreaks. Although abuse masquerades as something else (relationship, caring, service), it’s really about domination, control and violence, making relationship a mockery.

If you haven’t experienced it yourself, don’t be afraid to learn from those who have. Don’t be afraid to listen and welcome them, even when they’re angry or bleeding. Sometimes we fear the sufferer. The Samaritan was “Good” because he went beyond his fears. 

Sufferers will teach us how to help: “I’m hurt and ill from it, but you can’t tell by looking at me,” one said, “I need the Church’s healing.” Abuse has happened in the Church, too. Perhaps that’s the best place for us to look at it.

How does a person abused within the Church, by someone given the Church’s power and authority, approach the Church for healing? How does a person abused by the one who gave them sacraments approach a priest for Eucharist or confession? How do they turn for help to Church leaders when their sufferings went unheeded by Church leaders? 

It’s tough to approach a parish for succour when it seems unaware and unwelcoming: “I regularly hear intercessions for clergy, but never hear prayers for people like me who were hurt by clergy.” Abuse shatters the soul, tramples on childlike wonder, and when it happens in the Church it ravages trust in God: “I want to go back to the way I was, but I can’t. That hurts the most.”

Regardless of where it happens, a toxic shame, an inclination to hide, attaches itself to abuse and profits from it. Often the person abused feels the shame the abuser does not feel, and may use to threaten. For the person abused, not being heard is a whole new anguish. Immense harm comes to the sufferer, in prison with no way to bring things to the light: “I didn’t know what to do; I didn’t want him to do it, but didn’t know how to make him stop. I was afraid everybody would find out. I couldn’t tell anyone.” When this person did finally tell someone, her story was dismissed. We need to let light shine in the disturbing places, bringing the freedom that only the truth can give.

When we listen to such voices, as Pope Francis and Pope Benedict before him have done, the burden may be lessened, not increased. As one abused woman said, there’s “glory behind the suffering.” Once again shaken to waking by accounts of abuse and — appallingly— networks of abuse in the Church, we’re urged to open our ears and eyes. It’s alarming and painful to see, in our own house, evil given room to flourish. This is a healthy and profitable pain. If we face it, it will teach us how to act.

Another painful question: Why has the state (again, in part) wakened the Church about sexual abuse? The Church can’t be led by the state and will be in trouble if it views the crisis only in legal terms, yet it’s the state, paradoxically, calling the Church to repentance. There’s a dark grace in this, as Ron Rolheiser noted at the beginning of this scandal. 

Sexual abuse isn’t a Church problem, it’s a widespread human problem. But when sexual abuse by Church leaders — and Church conditions that allow or promote it — become common news, then the Church finds itself where the shame of all should be, and where the suffering is. 

The Church is given today the precious, urgent opportunity to find the way of healing for itself and for the rest of society. The Church has what it takes — but has to take what it has.

This is the moment for the Church to become itself, reading the “signs of the times,” which isn’t the same as becoming the times. Sexual abuse is wrong not because society says so, but because it contradicts the truth that the human person is God’s glory on Earth. If tomorrow society makes pedophilia legal, that wouldn’t change how the Church must care for those harmed by it.

The Church can never accept any form of harm to the vulnerable within her. It’s a double reason for us to become agents of healing. Sorrow isn’t enough, nor is promising to do better. How can we actively rebuild trust where it’s been destroyed?

The answer isn’t in careful legal defence or mumbled apologies (not Jesus’ style), nor protecting our assets, but by calling on the truth. Truth is on the cross here; that’s where truth, who is Christ, is discovered. The Church is on the cross: the best place to speak the truth and, as John’s Gospel says, do the truth.

(Marrocco can be reached at marrocco7@sympatico.ca)

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