There is a rather unusual article by Dr Jodi Death of the Queensland University of Technology School of Justice in today’s edition of The Age, “The divine act of forgiveness has cloaked decades of abuse” (noting, of course, that as usual the headline is determined by the editor, not the author). Unusual because it is a rather “disinterested” report on some actual face to face research rather than an opinion piece as such.
It is also very interesting, because it refers to a “problem” in the Church rather more significant than the usual hackneyed complaints of “clericalism” etc. The problem is (wait for it)…the Church’s obsession with forgiveness.
Here there is a direct connection with something that Archbishop Coleridge said in his Pentecost Pastoral Letter, namely that
Another factor was the Catholic Church’s culture of forgiveness which tends to view things in terms of sin and forgiveness rather than crime and punishment. But in the case of clerical abuse of the young, we are dealing with crime, and the Church has struggled to find the point of convergence between sin and forgiveness on the one hand and crime and punishment on the other. True, sin must be forgiven, but so too must crime be punished. Both mercy and justice must run their course, and do so in a way that converges.
Dr Death doesn’t list who the “15 church leaders” she spoke to were, nor even if they were all Catholic church leaders, but it is possible that she is picking up on what Archbishop Coleridge wrote. She writes:
Throughout, one issue continued to emerge as pivotal in the management of child sexual abuse that is itself central to the ethos of Christianity. This issue has pervaded Christian thought since the time of Christ himself and is central to the gospel familiar to church followers. It is forgiveness – the act of forgiveness of sin and of being forgiven for sinning. It is forgiveness that is increasingly being recognised as a complex and powerful element in addressing child sexual abuse by church leaders.
It is certainly something of an understatement to say that forgiveness is something which “has pervaded Christian thought since the time of Christ himself”. More accurate to say that it is THE Christian thought, the thought at the centre of the whole gospel. But that should be a good thing, shouldn’t it? How could it be a “problem”? Archbishop Coleridge has indicated one way in which it became a problem; Dr Death indicates another:
Research participants in my project were often quick to acknowledge that forgiveness was preached to victims of child sexual abuse in ways that kept them silent. This had enabled perpetrators to walk away to the next church and the next set of victims.
She says that the 15 church leaders she spoke to all showed
significant concern that the adage of ”forgive and forget” not be imposed on victims. The imposition of this model of forgiveness was seen as an abuse of grace and a means of suppressing the stories of victims – stories that churches needed to hear.
While recognising that the Christian concept of forgiveness has been misused as a form of spiritual abuse and manipulation, these leaders were not prepared to abandon it. They were concerned that victims should be able to participate in the church’s recognition of the truth about their abuse and the role of forgiveness within it.
In an alternative model of forgiveness offered by the participants of this project, the liberty, empowerment and emotional well-being of victims was seen to be the central concern of forgiveness. Such models accepted that forgiveness was a very sensitive journey that must originate from the victim, and not be demanded of them under the guise of spiritual direction. Rather, this model of forgiveness allowed victims to remember their abuse and infused this remembering with a call for justice. It placed control of their lives back in the hands of victims. Forgiveness was seen as a means to create a future that was free from the influence of the perpetrator, and marked by healing.
I am put in mind of a conversation I had with a Jewish dialogue partner once about the question of who can forgive and who can be forgiven. This story concerned a German man who had been a guard in a concentration camp that had sent hundreds of Jews to their deaths during the Second World War. Repentant of his crimes (after the war had ended), he sought out a rabbi and asked for forgiveness. The rabbi refused and said that the only people who could have given him forgiveness – his victims – were now dead. He had no right to grant forgiveness in their name.
The principle here is a significant one: no-one can forgive except the victim of the sin. In a spiritual sense, this means the sinner is bound by the victims decision to forgive or not to forgive. The sinner has forged chains of bondage that are bound hard and locked fast around his own soul – and the only one with the key is the victim.
Surely part of the “complex and powerful element” of forgiveness in the Christian Church is that we regularly do what the rabbi could not: we grant forgiveness – in the name of God no less! – to people for acts they have committed against others. No longer is the key to the chains of sin solely in the hands of the victim – Christ’s power to bind and loose is not limited. Confessors do not put the sacrament of absolution on hold until they have been able to consult with the victims and ask “do you forgive this person?”. They exhort the guilty to do penance for their sins (which includes to make amends for their sins and to surrender themselves over to civil justice where the sin requires it), to seek reconciliation with those they have hurt, and resolve not to sin again.
This “pervading thought” of forgiveness is a dangerous one. In all the talk about the “power of the Church” in relation to the scandal of sex abuse, this is the first time that the discussion has turned attention on the only power the Church really has: to bind and loose from the chains of sin. In his letter, Archbishop Coleridge raised the issue of the pervasiveness of evil of the pathology that drives sexual abuse, when he described abusers as
in the grip of a power which they can, it seems, do little to understand or control; and it is a power which is hugely destructive in the lives of those they have abused and in their own lives.
Perhaps we have been under the misapprehension that the key of forgiveness can also be used to unlock the chains of pathology. That clearly is not the case. As we know too well from our own experience in “little sins”, absolution alone does not set us free from our addictions.
What am I saying? Only that in granting the Church the power to forgive sins in his name, Christ was giving us a huge responsibility and taking a huge risk. In forgiving people their sins, are we failing to respect the rights of the sinned-against? The rabbi in the story above would have been scandalised to hear that the German guard then went to a priest who granted him the absolution that he sought. I don’t know if he ever did; but he could have. How is it possible to exercise the “power of the keys” in a way that also respects “the liberty, empowerment and emotional well-being of victims”? Dr Death’s “15 church leaders” are surely right in saying that this has to be at “a” (if not “the”) “central concern of forgiveness”.
Archbishop Coleridge got it right. Both mercy and justice must run their course, and do so in a way that converges. I pray that those to whom Christ has committed this ministry may have the wisdom to act in a way that this ministry requires. I know that personally, it would be beyond me.