Where is Jesus in the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandals?

Absent, some Catholics say. The Church’s priests and shepherds have proven that the Church is not really the Body of Christ. These Catholics will leave.

Others reassure us that the Church remains the Body of Christ despite the sins of its members. Even the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.

This latter view I hold to be theologically correct – but woefully insufficient. The Church may well persist as the body of Christ but its members can only claim to belong to this body if they manifest Jesus in their response to the crisis at hand. A temptation exists to turn things over to district attorneys, journalists, and therapists until things get straightened out and only then return to creeds and catechesis. Up against the present enormities, can Jesus offer anything more than suburban Sunday school sapience?

This temptation, though, obscures who Jesus is and how he upholds the Church. The climax of Jesus’ life and ministry was his death on the cross and his resurrection, which defeated sin, evil, and death decisively and eternally. This victory involved the satisfaction of demands for punishment, solidarity with every victim, a vindication of truth, the inauguration of a kingdom of justice, an achievement of healing, an invitation to penance, and forgiveness – a holistic response to all evil, including ours, performed by a man, underwritten by divinity. Thus was the Church founded and thus it is sustained.  

This is no mere sermonizing. For twenty years, I have been involved in the work of reconciliation in countries where victims of war, dictatorship, and genocide are denominated in commas and zeroes. In Kashmir and central Africa, I have listened to the stories of people who have suffered the death of loved ones, torture, permanent injury, imprisonment, economic ruin, and trauma. I have also studied responses to past evil in Chile and Guatemala, South Africa and Sierra Leone, Timor Leste and East Germany.

One of the most surprising features of these responses – especially to Westerners – is the prominent role of Christian churches. Their message is usually reconciliation. For Christians, reconciliation means a restoration of the right order of God’s creation involving the repair of the entire range of ways in which humans have marred this creation. This is how the Bible envisions justice – a restoration of right relationship, culminating in Jesus’ death and resurrection.

What might the justice of reconciliation mean for the crisis at hand? Like Jesus’s holistic saving action, it would involve practices that aim to restore persons and relationships with respect to different forms of woundedness.

The first of these is the telling of truth. The new face of the sex abuse scandals is the silence of high-level prelates towards the abuses of a fellow high-level prelate, accompanying new revelations of old patterns of priestly abuse and the inaction or coverup of certain bishops. What the past generation’s political transitions show is that only a full revelation of the truth can depose high-level perpetrators, whose lies continue to empower them.

Jesus’ cross and resurrection vindicated truth and defeated the lies of the powerful, for instance, Pontius Pilate, who asked, What is truth? As Mary sang in her Magnificat, though, Jesus’ truth also lifts up the lowly. Truth must include not only knowledge – journalistic investigation and courtroom testimony – but also empathetic acknowledgment of those whose lives have been shattered. In hearings of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the late 1990s, the traumatic testimony of victims of human rights violations was often followed by prayerful silence, the singing of hymns, and the embrace of loved ones. Truth was directed not only to justice but also to love.

Closely related is a second practice, the healing of memories. Story after story has surfaced of sexually abused children who later suffered from alcoholism, depression, and damaged marriages and careers. Their memories persistently debilitate them.

The Bible contains story after story of Jesus healing people – lepers, paralytics, a woman suffering years of menstrual bleeding – whom everyone thought were beyond help. Dawn Eden, a theologian and popular writer who was sexually abused as a child and found healing in the Catholic Church as an adult, explains that Christ invites victims to hide in his wounds, whereby their memories may be healed as they acquire a new identity in Him.

Healing is not easy or instantaneous. It may begin with the Church’s own sacrament of anointing. Circles where victims listen empathetically to one another’s stories and the professional expertise of therapists are also important and in a Catholic setting will center on Jesus.

Practices like punishment and penance shift the focus from victim to perpetrator.  The sacrament of reconciliation frees sinner from their guilt and leads them to penance, which can include apology and restitution. Michael Griffin of Holy Cross College argues in his 2016 book, The Politics of Penance, that the U.S. bishops have done too little penance for sex abuses.  Although some bishops issued apologies and conducted Masses of reparation, too few, he argues, have apologized for their own complicity, nor have they repented for it collectively. More forthright penance would contribute credibility to contrition, lend sincerity to the recognition of victims’ suffering, and aid the healing of penitents’ own souls.

Other practices merit mention such as increased accountability for bishops who commit or are complicit in abuses. There is one last practice that deserves more elaboration, though. It is one that few in the Church have spoken of during the past couple of decades of scandals yet is at the epicenter of Jesus’ response to evil: forgiveness. I do mean the forgiveness of abusers and of bishops who covered for them.

Many will wince. Just when new layers of abuse and coverup are surfacing, and when so few perpetrators have taken responsibility, how can forgiveness be appropriate? Would not forgiveness inexcusably exonerate the guilty and intolerably burden victims? Should not forgiveness await a future season?

If forgiveness means simple exoneration, then yes, it is outrageous. But could forgiveness mean something different? Forgiveness does not supplant truth, punishment, repentance, and reform. Nor does it excuse evil but rather presupposes it. Forgiveness should not be commanded or scripted but is rather a gift of mercy that victims ought to be allowed to perform (or refuse) freely.  

The positive case for forgiveness emerges in light of Jesus. During Jesus’ earthly ministry, he counseled forgiveness repeatedly, not least in the Our Father, which Catholics repeat at Mass. A Rwandan refugee once told me that for years after her father was killed in the genocide, she remained silent when the Mass came to the line “as we forgive . . .” until she decided to forgive – an admirable honesty.

Jesus counseled his disciples to forgive “seventy times seven” times, elaborating with the story of a servant whose debt is forgiven by a king yet who refuses to forgive his own debtor and is punished severely for it. Jesus’ message is clear: Forgive because God has forgiven you. He forgives at the Last Supper when he shares his own blood “for the forgiveness of sins” and forgives his murderers when dying an agonizing death on a cross.

Beyond his words and example, Jesus enables victims to forgive through his very death and resurrection. Through love, he suffers violence and arrant injustice, becomes a victim in solidarity with all victims and forgives sinners on their behalf. Should victims participate in this forgiveness, Jesus’ infinite divine love will empower them and liberate them from anger, hatred, revenge, and the woundedness of their shattered lives.

Do Christians really forgive heinous violence and abuse? In 2006, members of the Amish community of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania forgave the man who shot ten of their girls in a school room, killing five before killing himself. That evening, they went to the home of his widow to comfort her. Relatives of people slain in a shooting in an African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina forgave the unrepentant murderer, Dylann Roof. Pope John Paul II forgave his would-be assassin while visiting him in prison.

Victims of political injustices, I discovered, forgave in South Africa, Sierra Leone, Northern Ireland, Chile, El Salvador, Timor Leste, and many other places. I conducted a survey of 640 respondents in five regions of Uganda that had experienced political violence and found that 68% of victims of violence reported that they had practiced forgiveness and that 86% agreed that forgiveness was a good practice even in the aftermath of nightmarish violence. The most commonly cited reason for forgiveness was religion; the vast majority of respondents were Christian.

None of these victims claimed that forgiveness was easy or brought healing overnight, but they forgave out of their faith in Jesus. Like the resurrection, forgiveness constructs right relationship and does not merely relinquish claims. Forgivers become builder of peace and are thereby strengthened in their agency, in contrast to their previous objectification by violence. They are able to exercise this love because God loved them first.

Together with other practices, forgiveness brings the reconciling justice of Jesus into the midst of one of the greatest trials that the Church has faced in many years. If the Church fails to look to Jesus for concrete action in the here and now, then it becomes entirely understandable for Catholics to ask whether the Church is the Body of Christ after all. Should the Church turn back to its founder and its founding, it will testify that God’s promises are true even – in fact, especially – in the darkest of times.

Daniel Philpott is a Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Notre Dame. You can contact him at James.D.Philpott.1@nd.edu.