Forgiveness and the Roman Catholic Church: Too Soon

When Pope Francis stood before a crowd in Ireland, he asked for forgiveness from the faithful.  He readily acknowledged the wrong of it all, the damage done to victims and he is to be commended for this.  However, it’s way too soon to ask for forgiveness.

Forgiveness is relational. It is facilitated by an experience of justice-making and redress for wrongs done. Repentance begins the process. The Greek word for repentance is “metanoia” meaning “to get a new heart,” but it is not enough to repent in private prayer. Authentic repentance is signaled by changed behavior and ceasing to do what caused the pain or injustice.  Such changed behavior is an act of restoration for those who have been wronged. It opens the door for forgiveness to happen.  Forgiveness cannot be commanded or forced. Pope Francis asked for forgiveness but there is an absence of public, visible acts of repentance. It makes forgiveness sound like asking for a free pass. There has been plenty of time to change behavior, to show the fruits of repentance.

The Roman Catholic Church has known about the problem of priests molesting children since the 1950’s. It was then that Fr. Gerald Fitzgerald, the founder of the Servants of the Paracletes in New Mexico, recommended that pedophile priests not be returned to parish ministry.

Fr. Fitzgerald’s recommendation went unheeded because the church hierarchy disagreed with his treatment methods.  Since then, multiple dioceses and countries have had their own scandals and lawsuits for damage done by priests. At least 27 countries, including the US, have settled with victim/survivors as a result of litigation.  Of course, the number of cases that come to litigation is miniscule compared to the number of actual abuse cases. 

None of these litigious exposures has brought significant or lasting change in how the Roman Catholic Church deals with sexually abusive and violent priests. The only thing that has happened in these passed decades is that the Roman Catholic Church has spent three billion dollars keeping survivors quiet.  Institutional change is in the realm of the not yet.

Until the Roman Catholic Church takes decisive action to change the monolithic secretive structure of the institution, it is inappropriate to ask for forgiveness.  It is a slap in the face to those who have had no redress for the wounds inflicted upon them by abusive priests and the institutional evil and collusion at every level of the Roman Catholic Church.

Here are a few suggestions for decisive action that would demonstrate that the Roman Catholic Church is truly repentant, and that would open the door for forgiveness from the faithful:

  • Fire and defrock all bishops and hierarchical leaders who have knowingly colluded in shielding abusive priests from accountability.
  • Make clear disclosure to all parishes and institutions where abusive priests served. Stop using euphemisms and say what happened. Call rape, rape.  Call fondling, fondling.
  • Immediately defrock all priests, whether convicted in a court of law or not, who have abused children. Stop hiding behind the statute of limitations.
  • Use outside non-clerical personnel to investigate allegations of abuse. Priests investigating priests is clearly a failed strategy.
  • State decisively that sexually abusive behavior and homosexuality are completely unrelated. Require education about the clinical nature of pedophilia and other paraphilias and silence misinformed critics. They are confusing the issue.
  • Require every diocese to have an advisory group comprised solely of survivors of abuse by priests. Listen carefully to their truths and their suggestions.  They are among the faithful of the church and their witness is important.

When these things are firmly in process, then the faithful can be asked for forgiveness.  Until then there is plenty of other work to do.  This latest disclosure from the diocese of Pennsylvania is another opportunity to do the right thing.  Let’s hope they don’t miss it.

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