The Tricky Business of Forgiveness

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.

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12 Responses to The Tricky Business of Forgiveness

  1. Louise says:

    Our sins are against God above all others, which is why Christ has made it possible for our sins to be forgiven and even through the ministry of priests.

    However, it is not as though the process of absolution is automatic. It can be (and should be) witheld in the case of crimes that have not been reported to police (e.g. murder).

    There is no evidence that paedophiles confessed their sins (which were also crimes) and were absolved.

  2. Peregrinus says:

    [i] However, it is not as though the process of absolution is automatic. It can be (and should be) witheld in the case of crimes that have not been reported to police (e.g. murder).[/i]

    It is not, so far as I know, a principal of Catholic moral theology or pastoral practice that absolution should be withheld for a sin which is also a crime unless the penitent has dobbed himself in to the police.

    [i]There is no evidence that paedophiles confessed their sins (which were also crimes) and were absolved.[/i]

    Well, there wouldn’t be, would there? The truth is we have no way of knowing whether, and how often, this occurred. But this means that we should admit our ignorance, not proceed on the assumption that it never occurred.

    But I don’t think the issue here is the sacramental reconciliation of abusing priests. Bishops are not typically the confessors of their own priests, and a bishop dealing with an abusing priest has no way of knowing whether the priest has confessed and been absolved, and certainly shouldn’t be basing his decisions either on the priest’s assurance that this is so, or his own assumption that it is so.

    I think the point is a much wider one; the gospel call to forgiveness is not confined to sacramental reconciliation but to the whole of a Christian life. I am not a minister of sacramental reconciliation, but I am still commanded to forgive my brother not seven times, but seventy times seven times.

    If the church is to embody gospel values, the church has to be a forgiving church; this goes well beyond simply celebrating the sacrament of reconciliation when required.

    I find this very challenging. We are called to develop a way of forgiving abusers which not token but is real and whole-hearted, but which (it is now plain) does not create or continue a risk of further abuse. I think we have failed to do that so far.

    By coincidence, I was listening recently to a discussion among three evangelical Anglican theologians about forgiveness and how to realise it (in the sense of “make it real”) in the Christian community. They didn’t touch on child sexual abuse at all. But they did point to the South African truth and reconciliation process, in which forgivness was accompanied by truth-telling.

    But that requires commitment from more than just the penitent. For this to realise Christian forgiveness, there has to be a commitment by the community to love, really love, the sinner, even after he tells them the truth of what he has done. In the current climate, what abusing priest would expect to experience love if he spoke publicly and truthfully about his abuse?

    And that in turn reminds me of a radio programme (it was a ABC Encounter or Spirit of Things, if I remember rightly) I heard some months ago about a Canadian Christian group who made it their business to befriend and support, practically and spiritually, convicted child sex abusers being released at the end of their sentences. As we all know by now, paedophilia is a powerful compulsion with a high rate of relapse, and the entirely understandable instinct is to name, shame and shun offenders. We see this all the time. But this behaviour, of course, reinforces and intensifies the very thing it aims to oppose. The shamed, isolated, reviled, unsupported, unloved and unfriended paedophile has no resources with which to struggle against his compulsion. This group felt that the gospel called for a loving and courageous response which was quite the opposite of the instinctive response. According to the programme, none of the abusers who were supported by the group had ever reoffended, but the commitment of time and attention required from group members to achieve this was considerable.

    What underlies this approach is that forgiveness requires a commitment by the sinner to facing the truth, and a commitment by the community to accepting the truth and loving, really loving, the sinner in concrete practical and spiritual ways. That’s a huge challenge to both of them.

  3. Matthias says:

    I think that it would be humanly speaking very hard to support physically,spiritually.mentally and ,medically paedophiles and sex abusers in general once they have been released back to the community. But then the fact that this group in Canada required of the sinner a commitment to face the truth and also for themeselves to face the truth and to love the sinner moves above the human when people act like and believe in the Risen Christ.
    I found this comment over at the traditional Anglican website STANDFIRM ,in reference to a law professor from Notre Dame University speaking at a graduation at another Catholic college,:
    “what I like about the RCs in general which is that they have not given up on the existence or discovery of absolute truth, and thus they have not descended into the wildly postmodern deconstructionist lying and decline of integrity of so many other secularists and pretend-Christians.”

  4. Past Elder / Terry Maher says:

    No, the rabbi got it right. The rest is utter rubbish.

    What is more, once again the RCC runs true to form — oh if only the perpetrators were shown some love and forgiveness. The victims? Well …

    If thy brother sins against THEE, it says. Jesus is perfectly consistent with teshuva. In fact, if forgiveness is sincere;y sought, it must be granted under Jewish law. This is NOT a Christian addition to anything. Refusal to grant truly sought forgiveness is a sin in Judaism. Jesus is pointing that out, not adding a thing.

    The rabbi was right. The rest is rubbish. The reason RCC thinking does not and cannot see that it that, just as above, all it talks about is “forgiveness” — not a word about repentance. That is because you do not distinguish Law from Gospel, and think it bizzare than anyone should, though it is the key to both Law and Gospel.

    Teshuva all hinges on repentance. Without that, the rest is meaningless and rubbish. The unrepentant do not need and cannot hear Gospel, and will use it to hide. The unrepentant need Law, to understand even what the need for Gospel is; otherwise it is just getting off the hook.

    That is why the Office of the Keys isn’t just about loosing, it also is about binding. The forgiveness of God is not the forgiveness of the victims. You may speak the forgiveness of God; you cannot speak the forgiveness of the victims.

    The rabbi is right. The rest is rubbish. The first step in teshuva is the recognition of one’s sin; the second is a sincere remorse for it. It is difficult at best to posit these in the case of those whose sins only come to light because they were found out.

    • Schütz says:

      Whoa there for a minute, pardner!

      Of course, where there is no repentance, there is no forgiveness. That goes without saying. There has to be at least some real contrition (even if imperfect) in order for one to receive God’s forgiveness.

      But how can you say “the rabbi is right” if (for eg.) the German guard is truly repentant? The rabbi is not saying “I can’t forgive you because you are not repentant”, he is saying “I can’t forgive you because I am not the one you sinned against.”

      IOW, I am not disputing your insistence that repentance is necessary for forgiveness, but rather whether the only one who can forgive is the victim (which was the rabbi’s point). Did God give his apostolic ministers the authority to forgive sins or not?

      I would also want to ask you if only perfect repentance receives the benefits of God’s grace? IOW, if I confess my sins with true sorrow (in other words, I really hate the fact that I commit these sins and I truly love God and do not want to hurt him or spurn his love), and yet still humanly speaking have some attachment to my sin (either of the emotions or the will or the psyche – perhaps even an addiction of some kind), am I therefore debarred from God’s grace? Am I beyond the benefits of his absolution?

      I think in your insistence that “the rabbi is right; the rest is rubbish”, you are overlooking your own humanity and the great grace of God.

      Of course, you could be simply reacting to the fact that we are talking about heinous sins here, not your everyday garden variety of sin. Peregrinus’ account of the Canadian group should be a challenge to us. I guess I want to know that even great sinners can be forgiven and still have a place in the Church – because if they can’t, then how can there be a place in the Church for those of us who are each taught to know ourselves as “the chief of sinners”?

  5. Tony says:

    As interesting as reflections on forgiveness are, it doesn’t really account for so many abusive priests being re-assigned to other parishes.

    If, by way of analogy, I run a big store and one of my employees was caught stealing booze, I might forgive him, but I wouldn’t reassign him back to the booze department!

    The church has had it on good authority since the 70’s (as understand it) that an abuser is highly likely to abuse again if given the opportunity.

    A ‘central ethos’ of forgiveness is no excuse for putting other kids ‘in harms way’.

    • Schütz says:

      The church has had it on good authority since the 70?s (as understand it) that an abuser is highly likely to abuse again if given the opportunity.

      Was every bishop aware of this? Did every bishop understand it? Surely not. It would have required some education in the matter, which I don’t believe was a standard part of the education of bishops. Even today, as Perry’s story above points out, we are not enough “aware” of what is necessary to keep abusers from reoffending – not the extent of doing all that we can to bring them to true repentance and rehabilitate them in the Christian community, anyway. The current cry seems to be “defrock them” and “throw them out of the Church”, as if this is the solution. I think what +Mark and the “15 Church leaders” were saying is that there WAS a prevailing belief in the power of repentance and forgiveness that could change future behaviour. And surely this IS possible (stories of reformed sinners abound in the history of the Church) – but with pathologies such as sexual abuse it is, as you point out, psychologically a lot more unlikely. Today, from our perspective, we can stand in judgement on such naivite. The point being made here is that among church leaders in the past there was a (rather endearing if naive) committment to this “pervading thought” of forgiveness that has “been around since Jesus Christ”.

      A ‘central ethos’ of forgiveness is no excuse for putting other kids ‘in harms way’.

      Are you able to distinguish, Tony, between “an excuse” and “a cause”?

      • Peregrinus says:

        The current cry seems to be “defrock them” and “throw them out of the Church”, as if this is the solution.

        A cry which, I fear, has more to do with the protection of the church than with the protection of children. There are a great many chilling passages in the Murphy report into clerical sex abuse in Dublin, but not many are more chilling than this:

        [Having been dismissed from the clerical state after multiple instances of child abuse, and having been required to leave his church-owned residence, Fr William Carney] . . . “had been a taxi driver for some time after his laicisation. By a remarkable coincidence, [one of his previous victims] actually got into his taxi inadvertantly. Mr Careny seems to have left Ireland sometime in the mid-1990s. He was known to be living in Scotland but his current whereabouts are not known.”

  6. Past Elder / Terry Maher says:

    David, Davidula, that is exactly the problem — that without repentance there is no forgiveness goes without saying. All that is said is about forgiveness. Repentance is just not said.

    We are not talking about men who came forward repentant, we are talking about men who were found out because their victims, in spite of a structure which protected their perpetrators but did not protect them, finally spoke out.

    Whatever may or may not have been known about the psychopathology of child sexual abuse in the past doesn’t matter in the least. We have always known it was a sin. Pig’s bum a pervading thought of forgiveness. The only pervading thought was cover up and save face. The church’s face. I will not deny what I saw time and again. Nothing endearing about it whatsoever. And nothing naive either.

    The rabbi is exactly right. The story is based on something Simon Wiesenthal wrote. It is well known in Jewish circles, because it illustrates the point so well. Neither the rabbi nor anyone else can speak the forgiveness of the victims to the repentant perp. The forgiveness of God is another thing. Nor in any case is it dependent on perfect anything, except the sacrifice of Jesus.

    Once upon a time you probably spoke these words, instead of the mealy-mouthed mish-mash said at “Mass”: Upon this your confession, I, by virtue of my office, as a called and ordained servant of the Word, announce the grace of God unto all of you, and in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.

    Upon this your confession, not upon this your being found out.

    • Schütz says:

      We are not talking about men who came forward repentant, we are talking about men who were found out because their victims, in spite of a structure which protected their perpetrators but did not protect them, finally spoke out.

      I don’t know about what goes on in the soul of any one else, PE. And I don’t know if you can say of every case of abuse that the abuser is not repentant or has not shown repentance at least in asking for absolution of their sins. It is possible that every abuser is a complete bankrupt soul with no remorse at all for their sins. That would indeed be horrible. But I allow that God’s grace can even touch the most pathological of sinners, and that true repentance can (by the grace of the Spirit) grow even in their hearts.

      At the very least, for the “pervading thought” of forgiveness to have been an issue in the way these cases were dealt with, the abusive priest in question must at least have demonstrated some kind of outward show of repentance that convinced the person in charge who purportedly knew of their sins and purportedly forgave them and reassigned them.

      Maybe I am now the one being naive, but I cannot imagine that any bishop would have allowed a known abuser to continue in his priestly duties without such an outward show that seemed convincing at the time. You will note that I am doing what Dr Luther advised and “putting the best construction on everything”. More of my naivite, I guess.

      Neither the rabbi nor anyone else can speak the forgiveness of the victims to the repentant perp. The forgiveness of God is another thing.

      And it is this “other thing” to which I am referring, PE. On a natural level, in all human relationships, it is only the one sinned against that can grant forgiveness. The stupendous thing is that God has granted his Church the power to forgive sins – not on behalf of the sinned against – but on his behalf in the name of Christ. This the Rabbi could not do. This the Church can. But that still leaves the question of reconciliation and justice (or “putting to rights” as NT Wright puts it) in the human relationship.

      Once upon a time you probably spoke these words, instead of the mealy-mouthed mish-mash said at “Mass”: Upon this your confession, …I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.

      The words at mass are not “mealy-mouthed” because they do not intend to be the words of absolution, which are dealt with on a face to face basis. It could be said that in the Lutheran use of the general absolution at Mass, many Lutheran pastors have absolved abusers with less pastoral follow up than ever Catholic priests have, because such penitents are granted absolution without even having to name their sin before a confessor.

      • Past Elder / Terry Maher says:

        That’s what I like about this blog — “Catholics” talk about “Catholicism” in an entirely foreign language to someone who could not even consider than any other church but the one he was in was worth listening to until he was 24 in 1974.

        What in the hell do you mean than what is said after “Confiteor” has no intent of absolution? Then why in the hell did you confess?

        One of the most basic items of catechesis is about why if we have the Confiteor at Mass do we also have the Sacrament of Penance, and vice versa. And later, under what circumstances does “corporate confession and absolution” suffice and under what does it not, after “corporate confession and absolution” was invented by the RCC. I should have expected a retort based on that rather than an assertion that the words at Mass have no intent of absolution.

        Likewise, that private confession has fallen into dismal disuse among Catholics and Lutherans alike, re the latter, in spite of Luther’s words that if one understood the benefits and effects of this, one would run a hundred miles to obtain it. The former long lines for Confession on Saturday are as rare as the person arriving out of breath from a long run at the parsonage. And for God’s sake do not descend into pointing out it’s different at St Popefig’s, as if that disproved the general state of things any more than the Lutheran here and there who does go to individual confession.

        Of course the rabbi could not forgive sins. That is not at all to say that in his religion sins are not or cannot be forgiven, but rather, that it is no more the rabbi’s role to do so on either his own or on behalf of God’s power, but rather that the forgiveness is already there available, in fact to Jew and Gentile alike, and neither rabbi nor messiah is part of that.

        Which is also a, if not the, principal barrier to Jews about Christianity, proclamation of a messiah about things the messiah is not about and already exist, a “good news” that is no news at all, except to those who do not know the news.

        And yet, there is one thing enduringly Catholic throughout, because it is the one thing enduringly Catholic at all — that first, last and always, it is The Catholic Church The Catholic Church The Catholic Church, which is right even when it is wrong, and if it were ever wrong it was so for the right reasons so back off, which is amusing most of the time, but appalling in this matter, wherein accountability and responsibility is quietly reassigned as if we were discussing medical doctors trying to treat an illness or condition before modern research was done as easily as the perpetrators were quietly reassigned.

        Then again, what else can one expect from the RCC? Elsewhere I have been invited to discontinue dscussion because I am not Australian, though the situation arising there is arising everywhere in the now non-Latin Latin rite, wherein now not only its former rite is a curiosity piece, but its current one too, as we find the very same thing that the new church has laid before its people these last decades is now to be introduced, again, over a generation later, in “translation”, shewing there is no “lation” at all let alone a trans thereof.

        Flee the Roman rubber room before it kills you.

  7. Peregrinus says:

    Pig’s bum a pervading thought of forgiveness. The only pervading thought was cover up and save face.

    I think you suggest a false dichotomy here, Terry. It is possible to want to cover up and save face, and to want other things as well.

    If the only or paramount concern is “cover up, save face, protect the church”, then the rational course is to identify offenders and sling ‘em out at the first opportunity – quietly, if possible, but get them out so as at least to limit damage to that which has already occurred.

    And it often [I]can[/I] be done quietly. The offender, obviously, has no interest in drawing attention to his situation, and victims and their families are more likely to feel acknowledged and cared for if early and vigorous action is taken against the offender. This doesn’t guarantee their discretion but it does make it more likely.

    In short, if the bishop’s [I]only[/I] concern was to protect the reputation and/or assets of the institution, then they weren’t doing what you would expect them to do. So we have to look a bit further to explain what they actually did do.

    I completely accept that the bishops were, in the main, trying to protect the institution, but repeated second chances and reassignments were something they saw as consistent with that objective, rather than something they saw as the best or only way of achieving that objective. If we ask ourselves why they engaged in this behaviour, I think the answer “to protect the institution” is simplistic to the point of being inaccurate. I think they were also thinking in a clericalist mindset, in which priests were more important than lay people, and in a “fatherly” mindset in which their moral responsiblities to their priests they knew carried greater weight than their moral responsibilities to lay people they mostly didn’t know. And I think there also was a “culture of forgiveness” in the way that David suggests; the problem was seen as a moral problem facing the individual priest and that space should be given for the grace of God to operate and to be recognised and accepted. I think all of those factors, and more, were at work.

    What they all share, of course, is a moral disregard for the lay victims of clerical abusers, which speaks of a thoroughly rotten ecclesial culture. So what I say here is no sense a defense of the bishops concerned; it’s just an attempt to understand how they could do what they did.

    Tony, you say that “the church has had it on good authority since the 70?s (as understand it) that an abuser is highly likely to abuse again if given the opportunity.”

    This isn’t my area, but I think it’s a bit more nuanced than that. There [i]were[/i] professional and academic voices saying that from the 1970s, but that was by no means the only, or the dominant, view; bishops were getting a variety of advice on this. I recall reading of a survey of the academic and professional literature on paedophilia, which concluded that (a) the persistence or otherwise of paedophilia was not much discussed in the literature until the mid 1980s, and (b) there wasn’t a professional consensus as to its virtual intractability until the late 1980s.

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