Time for serious outreach to clerical sex victims — and their abusers

I recently gave a talk to a group of Catholic bookstore owners about the book I co-wrote with Matthew Bunson, “Pope Benedict XVI and the Sexual Abuse Crisis: Working for Reform and Renewal” (OSV, $12.95). 

Afterward, I heard from one woman in pain whose brother had been abused by a priest when he was a boy. His diocese, she said, did almost nothing to help him in his pain and turmoil, and he was deeply alienated from the Church. 

Shortly after this conversation, I met another woman on the elevator who told me about two priests she knew who had been abusers. One ended up killing himself. One had a nervous breakdown. 

Two women, two tales of suffering, misery and despair. We can lose sight of this elemental fact: There are souls in great pain out there, both the abused and the abusers. And forgetting the headlines, lawsuits and controversies for a minute, are not we as followers of Christ called, first and foremost, to minister to these wounded souls? 

A priest I know recently commented in a homily that we don’t get to pick our brothers. As Catholics, and as hard as it is to say on many occasions, both the abuser and the abused are our brothers. Our sisters. 

I am hoping that somewhere out there are ministries that are quietly, persistently reaching out to the victims of clerical sexual abuse. Not to control them. Not to minimize their chances of suing. Not to study them. Simply to share God’s love with them. For they are loved, no matter what was done, no matter how terribly it has affected their lives, their families, their relationships. God loves them, and in this terrible situation we are called to be God’s beating heart. 

Pope Benedict XVI sets the stage for this in his letter to the Catholics of Ireland, when he both empathizes with the victims (“You have suffered grievously… Your trust has been betrayed and your dignity violated.”), and urges them to reach out to the healing love of Christ: 

“I pray that, by drawing nearer to Christ and by participating in the life of his Church — a Church purified by penance and renewed in pastoral charity — you will come to rediscover Christ’s infinite love for each one of you. I am confident that in this way you will be able to find reconciliation, deep inner healing and peace” (No. 6). 

This may not happen, however, if we do not make the first move, if we do not reach out, if we do not embody God’s healing love. 

This would not be an easy ministry. There is often deep anger and a sense of profound betrayal, and understandably so. Perhaps even more difficult would be a ministry to the priest abusers. I certainly don’t pretend to know why they have abused. Some are extraordinarily manipulative and deceitful. But others are broken men. They betrayed their vows. They betrayed their Church. In the words of Scripture, they may feel it would be better if they tied a millstone around their own necks and dropped into the sea. 

Yet they are our brothers too: laicized or not, in prison or not, repentant or lost, they are our brothers. Pope Benedict asks them to “submit yourselves to the demands of justice, but do not despair of God’s mercy.” How are they not to despair, these modern-day lepers? How many are simply adrift? 

Different ministries, but both should be spiritual priorities if we take seriously Christ’s eternal challenge to serve our brothers and sisters who are most in pain. 

The point of such ministries would not be to drive headlines, or take the heat off those in positions of responsibility. It would simply be to make known the healing power of the Lord, bringing his love to those most in need of its balm. 

Greg Erlandson is OSV’s president and publisher.