Man, this is a tough one. A Pennsylvania grand jury has released a report on the extent of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy in that state for the last 70 years or so. It has created all sorts of sensationalist headlines. The hundreds of stories recounted in the report are each heartbreaking and in some cases sickening. One comes away feeling soiled in the reading, which when it is God’s redemptive institution doing the soiling, feels like it cannot be washed off.
The report is unlikely to lead to new criminal charges or civil lawsuits under the current law because the statute of limitations has expired.
In other words, this is a historical account not a current reality. Yet virtually all the news stories I have seen have treated this as if it represents the current state of affairs in the Roman Catholic Church – the stories include calls to eliminate the statute of limitations.
Apparently there is no redemption for God’s redemptive institution.
And thus, while I am saddened and sickened and horrified at the stories told in the report I am equally outraged that things that happened decades, and in some instances lifetimes, ago are being used to pillory an institution that seems generally to be doing its level best to address and rectify a hideous circumstance.
Before I delve too deeply into this, there is a little personal background that needs to be laid out. I am Protestant, not Catholic. I am unfamiliar with the ins and outs of how the Roman Catholic Church operates. I am an outsider looking at this from a distance. I am deeply and profoundly Christian. When I look at something fallen, whether it be an individual caught in some heinous act or an institution engaged in atrocity, I am torn between the desire to punish and the desire to redeem. The Bible contains both. Christ died to redeem us and yet he excoriated and condemned some wrongdoers. God’s justice lies not purely in finding and punishing wrongdoing or purely in redeeming the fallen. God’s justice lies in energetically redeeming what can be redeemed and reluctantly condemning that which cannot.
I have personal history with sex abuse in religious clothing. One of my ministry mentors, someone I love and care about deeply to this day, was involved in such. When I was young and definitely in his tutelage, I had my suspicions and confronted him with them. Shamefully, I allowed him to buffalo me. Years later when he was caught I could have been held to account for my failure to go further with my suspicions. But I was not. People recognized my youth and my shame and my love for this person and allowed me to deal with it between God and myself. Because of how I cared for this person I continued my relationship with him through the years. The church he was a part of stripped him of his clerical status and put him through a rigorous accountability process. I can say honestly that it was one of the more joyous days of my life when, several decades later, he told me that the church had restored his clerical status. God’s justice was realized and my friend was redeemed – that is worth celebrating.
And so with this background, when I approach this latest report on the abuses inside the Roman Catholic Church I approach it trying to set aside my natural revulsion at the acts described and with an eye towards God’s justice – a justice that seeks to redeem before it condemns.
To the best of my knowledge, the Roman Catholic Church has been doing its best to deal with the abuses since the initial revelations in 2002. It is a large and complex institution and course corrections of this type is neither simple or quick. They cannot just flick a switch and change everything. Secondly, some, but certainly not all, of the accused “cover-ups” strike me as the church, misguidedly in some cases, seeking to redeem its own rather than just hide a crime. That is a church’s natural impulse – as we have said, God’s justice seeks to redeem first and condemn only as a last resort. Bear in mind the victim needs much help and assistance as well, and the church should have tried to offer that. Though understandably many a victim might be hesitant to accept it – particularly when their victimizer was not, from their perspective being properly excoriated. A redemptive impulse for both victim and victimizer should not be condemned, even if it proved ill-conceived, poorly executed and failed to account for the fact that not every evildoer can be redeemed.
And so I come to this report and I wonder what is its useful purpose? Particularly given that it cannot result in any criminal or civil action. Is it to pick at wounds now healing? Is it to bring the church to the state’s heel in some fashion? Is it simply to begin anew the metaphorical stoning of the Roman Catholic Church?
I sincerely hope and pray the Roman Catholic Church will use the accounts it contains to further its own efforts at reform and redemption and justice. I also hope they will use it as a guide to victims previously unrevealed and seek reconciliation with them, both spiritually and in recompense. There is justice in that.
But I also caution a press and segment of society eager to condemn the church. Looking at this report while not simultaneously and in the same level of detail looking at the Roman Catholic Church’s efforts at reform in the last couple of decades is not just. The church is centuries old and foundational to most everything we hold dear, whether you want to admit it or not. It was sickeningly, hideously wrong in these situations, but that does not undo the good that it has done in those centuries. Justice demands that we take it all into account.