Overcoming Child Abuse

Reflections on recovery.

Isn't It the Pope Who Should be Excommunicated, and Not the Nun?

Healing for survivors of sexual abuse by Catholic priests

Friday morning's TV newscast announced that Pope Benedict XVI, during a Mass celebrated by 15,000 priests from around the world, begged forgiveness from victims of clergy sexual abuse and promised "to do everything possible" to protect children. His plea and promise sounded too staged to me, too photo-op, way too late, and it made my head hurt. But there was still a part of me that wanted to see something positive in it, something genuine, wanted to believe the news was a glimpse into the beginning of a true transformation of consciousness. I perused the ABC website for more information only to read that the Pope implied that the devil was behind the timing of the scandal, saying this was supposed to have been a year in celebration of the priesthood.

 Really Pope Benedict? Did you have to jump immediately  to blaming someone else (the devil)? And did you have to cling to concern over the image of the priesthood?

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Speaking of image, I remember a scene from a family therapy  workshop given by Cloe Madanes, a master therapist, many years ago. The identified patient was an adolescent girl who had been incested by her father for several years. Systemically-oriented Cloe orchestrated an intervention during which each member of the family listened to the girl describe how the abuse had affected her, then knelt before the girl, took responsibility for his or her part in the incest, pledged to change, and begged for her forgiveness. Why couldn't the Pope have done something like that?  How powerful would it have been for him and the 15,000 priests in attendance to, with sincere intent, have layed prostrate on the ground of St. Peter's Basilica, and prayed in their native tongues, Lamb of God, Who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.  Lamb of God, Who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us. Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace.

The survivors of clergy abuse and their families long for peace, and reportedly were no more positively impressed by Pope Benedict's words than I was. Why? Because there was no announcement of a clear-cut plan to root out pedophiles. No clear-cut plan to expose the bishops who protected the abusers. No change in Vatican policies and the culture that allowed the abuse. 

I was reared in the Catholic Church, and attended Catholic schools through college. I was not abused by a priest; in fact I was taught by several outstanding priests, and daily Mass was a sanctuary of grace and inspiration for me during years when I was being abused by my own father. Later, as an adult in my 40's, suffering from symptoms of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of the abuse, and deeply inolved in my own therapy, I went to a retreat house for several days of rest and prayer. Four priests, Vincentians, were making retreats at the same time and we exchanged stories over supper one evening. They were in a pew several rows ahead of me during Mass the next day. At the kiss of peace, when folks generally shake hands or hug each other, each of these men, one by one, turned around and bowed to me. A slow bow, intentional, reverent, and said, "peace be with you." It is a memory I treasure, though I've never known quite how to describe the feelings I experienced as a result of this encounter.

Friday night, while watching the opening ceremonies of the World Cup on TV, I saw Archbishop Desmond Tutu, with a big smile on his face, dancing  around the stands, bursting with joy, and there it was!  I recognized a quality in his feelings, reminiscent of the emotions I had felt in reaction to the expression of compassion extended to me by those four priests. It was a quality of joy that in my opinion could spring only from a deep awareness of human dignity, and a deep awareness of God's love for us. The Vincentian priests gifted me with a profound exerience of my own dignity.  Their ritual within a ritual dispelled the shame I had shouldered for years, and uplifted me. Joy entered my heart.

Last week's news was that Sister Margaret McBride, a well-respected Sister of Mercy and member of the Ethics Committee of St. Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix, Arizona, was excommunicated by Bishop Thomas J. Olmstead. His reasons? She had allowed an abortion to be perfomed on a 27-year-old mother of four, who was  11 weeks pregnant, and suffering from pulmonary hypertension that would likely kill her and her unborn child. The bishop stated that "an unborn child is not a disease...the end doesn't justify the means." Wow! What is it with these guys? Was anybody perceiving  the child to be a disease? Was anyone (other than this bishop) looking at things so simplistically? NPR has a wonderful opinion piece on their website, written by Julianna Baggett: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=127033375 which highlights the compassion and wisdom in Sister Margaret's choice for mercy.

I'm not a fan of cutting people off, of excommunicating them. But I am a fan of zero tolerance when it comes to child abuse.  The Pope and his colluding bishops should all be fired for not doing their jobs, and those who have broken laws should be reported and convicted. In Mary Gail Frawley O'Dea's book, Perversion of Power: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church on pages 132 and 133, there's a passage that reports advice given to bishops by Rev. Thomas Doyle, a cannon lawyer and victim's advocate: "Drop everything, realize that these boys and girls, men and women who were sexually abused as children,...are not the enemy.  They've been deeply, deeply, deeply hurt--devastated.  They're the most important people in the Church.  Drop your meetings, your social events, your guest appearances.  Go to them. One by one, sit in their homes, listen to them, let them cry, let them be angry, but help take some of that pain away. Do what Christ would do. Do what a real priest would do."

The devil didn't contaminate the celebration of priesthood that the Pope thought he was entitled to -- his perverted priorities did. Pope Benedict XVI could learn a lot from Sister Margaret's merciful spirit, and from Archbishop Desmond Tutu's spirituality-in-action as well. There are so many survivors of sexual abuse by Catholic priests, and they're in need of healing...by the priests they have been broken; by the priests, the real ones that is, they could be healed. Dispense with the pomp and circumstance, the jewels, the fancy vestments, Pope Benedict, and take on the cloak of Christ.

 

 

Catherine McCall is a Clinical Fellow of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy and the author of Never Tell: A True Story of Overcoming a Terrifying Childhood.

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