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Forgiving the 'unforgivable'

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The Church has made changes since the sexual abuse crisis of the early 2000s, and seen some big setbacks — think of the Dallas Charter, then the McCarrick scandal, followed by Pope Francis’ reforms in Vos estis lux mundi.

But hard cases are still emerging, and many victim-survivors are still hurting and waiting to be heard. So how can the Church do more?

This week, The Pillar’s Charlie Camosy talked with Daniel Philpott, a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame. Philpott’s work is focused on how to achieve reconciliation after events of unspeakable trauma.

Camosy and Philpott talked about truth and reconciliation commissions, the work they have done to heal societies after the horrors of apartheid and genocide, and what the Church can learn from those experiences.

It has been revealing to see the talking heads chime in with their theories about what's behind the war in Ukraine.

Turns out that it’s issue X, where X is their pet issue that they've been harping on for years in totally different contexts. One tweet I saw making fun of this blamed the war in Ukraine on "automatic flushing toilets."

There's a similar danger when it comes to theorizing on what's behind the sex abuse crisis, isn't there? Academics sometimes refer to this as the danger of totalizing narratives.

That’s exactly right. It’s all too common for people in the Church to assimilate events into their ready-made narratives. So, Catholics on Twitter and on the blogs interpret the Church’s sex abuse crisis in their familiar narratives of left and right, pro-Pope Francis or anti-Pope Francis. Crudely put, for the left the problem stems from clericalism, for the right, from the Sexual Revolution. Both are right and wrong.

I propose that, rather than begin with ideology or our go-to narratives, we begin with our foundations and with who we most really are and then we prayerfully approach our problems from that standpoint. How does God respond to sin? Through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the center of our faith. God’s response is available for us in every mass as the Eucharist, and our lives are meant to conform to the Eucharist.

What would a Eucharistic response involve? It would be a holistic approach to healing the broad range of wounds that the abuse crisis has inflicted and to restoring the people involved and, more broadly, the Church itself.

I do not mean to overlook that the Church – in the U.S., in other countries, and in Rome – has responded to abuse in good and important ways. The Dallas Charter of 2002 established norms for the protection of minors and dealing with abuse that have made the Catholic Church a safer place for youth, safer even than many other institutions such as the public schools.

Pope Francis’s document 0f 2019, Vos estis lux mundi, furthered accountability among bishops. The Church in the U.S. has paid out some 3 billion dollars in reparations. Bishops and priests have voiced apologies and conducted masses of reparation and healing, while some have cared for victims with pastoral tenderness. Other measures could be mentioned. But vast wounds remain.

Many survivors and their families have not received empathetic acknowledgement of their distress; many report that this failure hurt them more than the abuse itself. There is a lack of consistent, long-term accompaniment for survivors and those wounded with them.

Few priests and bishops have repented openly for their own abuses and acquiescence and not simply for the Church’s failures as a whole. Constantly emerging new headlines make us wonder if much truth is yet to be aired.

There has been no accountability for many priests and bishops who committed abuse or who failed to respond. Adult victims of abuse in the setting of church ministries and institutions are increasingly asking that attention be given to their plight. The Church as a body has lost membership, credibility and the ability to carry out evangelization. There has been a sizable movement towards the exit doors of the Church.

You're directing a project looking at the lessons of truth and reconciliation commissions for the sex abuse crisis in the Church.

Is part of what is leading you to do this now an attempt to move beyond totalizing narratives and dive into the much more complex reality?

The project began one day in fall 2019 when a German professor who was a visiting scholar at Notre Dame at the time, Katharina Westerhorstmann, knocked on my door and asked me if I wanted to join her in competing for a grant that Notre Dame’s president, Fr. John Jenkins, had made available for faculty to address the sex abuse crisis.

A theologian who is now on the faculty at Franciscan University at Gäming, Austria, Westerhorstmann had written about the crisis and advocated for survivors in the Church in Germany. She had the idea that truth and reconciliation processes in nation-states might contain lessons for the Church in its own efforts towards restoration.

As a scholar and activist of political efforts to confront past injustices, and as a Catholic worried about the effects of the crisis in the Church, I agreed to work with Dr. Westerhorstmann. We were delighted to receive a grant in December 2019.

Over the past half-century, a wave of countries around the world have sought to confront the atrocities of war, dictatorship, and genocide in their past in an effort to make a transition to democracy or a peace settlement away from war, dictatorship, and genocide. The most famous of these are South Africa, Germany, and Rwanda. They, too, are trying to move away from totalizing – and often totalitarian – narratives that have resulted in gargantuan injustices and division.

A common theme has been reconciliation. Think of South Africa’s famous Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Reconciliation has less prestige in international institutions than it does in the villages and byways where people have to live together again. It is often religious leaders who advocate it and religious people who practice it – unsurprisingly because the concept is at the heart of Christianity.

It’s this approach – and not the familiar ideological narratives – that we think could hold promise for the Church. The truth commission is a familiar part of these experiences. Over 40 have taken place in the past few decades. A common conviction is that only when the complete truth about the past is aired can trust be restored and other measures of healing take place. Reparations, trials, apologies, memorial and forgiveness were also features of these efforts.

Might measures of this kind bring healing to an unhealed Catholic Church? Yes, but we’d have to get past our totalizing and divisive narratives. Reconciliation is based on another totalizing narrative – the comprehensive restoration of the universe through the cross and resurrection of Jesus.

If you think about it, this, too, is an encompassing restoration with many dimensions. It brings about the repentance of perpetrators, solidarity with victims, the revival of the poor and the disempowered, forgiveness of perpetrators, and the restoration of wounds in general.

Your project held a major consultation among experts this past fall. What happened at the consultation?

Are there unresolved issues you think need to be highlighted going forward?

The project brought together 23 lawyers, priests, scholars, survivor advocates, and psychologists to consider these ideas on September 24th, 2021. Seven participants were survivors of abuse-related trauma.

The day began early in the morning with a searing testimony of one survivor who had experienced particularly heinous abuse while a child and had not found empathy from the Church. After this testimony, as moderator, I put aside the formal agenda and opened the forum for everyone to speak. They were eager to share their thoughts; by 5:00 pm, there was still a queue of hands in the air.

That a vast array of unhealed wounds persists in the Church today, whose credibility continues to suffer, was one of the overriding conclusions of the day. Many emphasized the “ripple effects” of sex abuse on family members and friends.

Here is the rapporteur’s report of the conversation. A couple of initiatives arose from the day. One, which I am involved in, is developing and recommending restorative practices, this time with a more practical eye towards implementation in the Church.

Your advocacy of forgiveness is controversial, something that even some therapists refer to as the “f-word” when it comes to responding to sex abuse.

Can forgiveness ever be healthy in this context?

At our consultation, when the subject of forgiveness came up, a couple of participants who had worked directly with survivors insisted that victims regard forgiveness as the “f-word.” Other participants voiced more support for the idea, though more tentatively. Forgiveness has also been a rarified word in the Church’s conversation about sex abuse.

I notice a parallel in my work on nation-states recovering from violence. What is called the transitional justice community – the scholars, lawyers, and activists who consult for governments, speak at conferences, and write in journals – either ignore or criticize forgiveness. Trials, truth commissions, reparations, and memorials – fine. Forgiveness, though, goes too far. Who would place the burden of repair back on victims by asking them to forgive? And why would victims forgive the perpetrators of heinous deeds towards them? They sound much like the skeptics of forgiveness in our conversations

The skeptics are right! Forgiveness can burden victims and sometimes its advocacy wounds again. Yet, on the ground, it can be different. When I published my book on reconciliation, “Just and Unjust Peace,” in 2012, one of the first reviews appeared in The New Republic. The author, Barry Gewen, a New York editor, praised the book but was skeptical that forgiveness was more than rarified, saintly behavior that, if advocated, can produce “fanaticism and destruction.”

I decided to find out if Gewen was right. How frequently do people who have lived through armed conflict forgive? With the help of the Fetzer Institute, I organized a study of 640 people who had lived through armed conflict in Uganda and sought to find out what they thought of forgiveness.

The results were startling: 68% of survivors of violence reported that they had practiced forgiveness while 86% of respondents were favorable to forgiveness in settings of horrible violence. Focus groups and interviews confirmed the findings.

What explains the discrepancy between these results and what the transitional justice community and Gewen would expect? The most common reason that the respondents cited for forgiveness was their Christian faith. Muslims, 20% of the respondents, were equally favorable to forgiveness.

Christianity alters the plausibility of forgiveness, especially in settings of massive violence. The reason is that, in contrast to a secular perspective, another party is involved – God, the creator and redeemer of the universe, who, unlike any earthly person or reality, is infinitely greater than the evil involved. In the incarnation, God himself becomes a victim who forgives his slayers. This changes the picture.

The New Testament, as well as in the Book of Sirach, links our forgiveness of others to God’s forgiveness of us. Later, in Matthew 18, Jesus tells Peter to forgive “seventy times seven” times and tells a story of a king who forgives a servant’s debt while the servant refuses to forgive another’s debt. The clear lesson is that because God has forgiven us, we should forgive others.

God does not simply command forgiveness, though, but also enables it. This is through grace, which makes actions possible that otherwise would not be. Even more so, Jesus incorporates victims into himself on the cross, and into his own forgiveness of his enemies. The Ugandan Christians to whom I spoke understood these realities, and I believe it enabled them to forgive.

One of the inspiring participants in our consultation was Dr. Emily Ransom of Holy Cross College, who had written an article in the Church Life Journal about her own response to sex abuse on the part of a priest.

A Catholic, she very much wanted to forgive him, but the overseers of the case in the Church asked her not to speak with him, an action which hurt her, she recounts, more than the abuse. Since then, she has pursued forgiveness of him further and has found sympathetic supporters in the leadership of the Church.

Forgiveness is a question that we will continue to raise.

This is an issue filled with landmines. Indeed, I think that's probably one important reason why totalizing narratives are comforting for some folks.

When folks like you dive into the narrative-defying complexity you open yourself up to profound and potentially damaging criticism from multiple centers of power.

Why do you stay in the fray?

Return to the theological grounds of reconciliation and restorative justice. Again, grace makes possible what otherwise might not be possible. Ordinary people on the ground in countries grappling with violent pasts have shown us this.

The Holy Spirit has inspired us to believe that God’s will to restore the world has relevance even in its darkest places.

And if that cannot be relevant in the Church, where else can it be?

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