It is critically important that any Catholic speaking out on the clergy sexual abuse crisis, particularly anyone who suggests that the general media
coverage of the issue is incomplete, make it absolutely clear that the sexual abuse of a child is abhorrent. I have known more than a few people who have been sexually abused, though none to my knowledge by priests, so I have seen the long-term damage that is done by such abuse. These are more wounds than scars, and they can last a lifetime.
But in making absolutely clear that the victim is not to be blamed, and is, in the words of Pope Benedict, “courageous” for speaking out, I feel at times that we run the risk of turning the abuser into something less than human, an icon of hate, someone that we can all feel free to loathe.
I feel it myself. I can only imagine what a murderous rage I would feel if a child of mine were abused.
The kind of passionless response by many in authority to the accounts of priestly abuse is part of the disconnect that has so damaged the reputation of bishops. In reading some of their depositions, we long for a cry of anguish and anger, some sign of human feeling we can identify with.
But as Catholics, we cannot stay at the level of rage. Isn’t Christ challenging us to see him even in the deviant? I thought of this recently when I was talking with a woman I know — a respected catechist who gives talks all around the country — about the abuse crisis. We agreed that the stories of clergy abuse were a horror, but then she told me a story that had impacted her greatly.
She had given a talk about forgiveness, and afterward, had noticed that one man had been waiting to talk with her after everyone else had left. He approached her and said how moved he was by her talk and how much it meant to him. He said it had special significance for him because he was a pedophile. The woman, who had taught young children for many years, said she was taken aback, and a feeling of revulsion swept over her.
He said that he had not acted on his impulses, though he told her it was a daily struggle. He was married, but this terrible longing kept him from being close with his own children. He had himself been abused, and now he lived with this deadly shame that had been transmitted to him, feeling the desire, knowing that he could succumb at any time.
The woman listened to him and his story, and her feeling of disgust changed. At the end, she said, she didn’t know what else to do but to embrace him.
As she told the story, she cried, and I thought of the story of St. Francis embracing the leper. Of course lepers have no choice in their disease, you might say. Yet we are not asked to see Christ only in the faces of those with extenuating circumstances. Jesus did not come for the clean, but the unclean, the sinner rather than the saint.
Child abusers may be the most hated of creatures in our society. Even the worst criminals despise child molesters, in part because many criminals were themselves abused when they were young.
The child abuser, even one who has not acted on his impulses, is a haunted, cursed creature. Our instinct is to shun him, even as we justly hate his actions. Yet if we hate him, are we any different from the world, hating what the world hates? Could this person be where we are challenged to encounter Christ in what Mother Teresa called “one of his more distressing disguises”?
The very thought fills me with the kind of dread that Francis must have felt when he realized he was called to embrace the most repulsive and feared of men, the dread he felt before he encountered Christ.
Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.