Thin line between mercy and justice

Since mid-December, amid his many other teachings, Pope Francis has been giving inspiring and thought-provoking talks on the family during his weekly General Audiences. It’s one thing on the pope’s calendar every week that, as a Catholic, husband and father, I make sure never to miss, and I can’t recommend them strongly enough.

They have all hit home, but none more so than his discussion this past Wednesday. He spoke of children and how they are all a precious gift, never a mistake. “The mistake is the world of adults, the system that we have built,” he said. He spoke of children, and he spoke of mercy — another favorite Francis topic — toward them.

Again, I’ve loved all his talks recently. But this one knocked me down, and this is why.

My wife and I recently have gone through possibly the toughest thing we’ve had to deal with in the 12 years we’ve been parents. Specifics aren’t necessary, but there was an ongoing issue of a student sexually harassing the girls in my daughter’s sixth-grade classroom. The things Olivia, our 12-year-old, told us were shocking. My wife teaches at a public school in an extremely poor neighborhood, so we’re not naïve about what children know and don’t know about the birds and the bees. But we expect more at our small, suburban Catholic school. We expect our kids to feel safe and to be at least a little sheltered from foul language and graphic descriptions.

This student, who was new to the school after allegedly being kicked out of a public school the year before, was wholly disrupting our Catholic community. The threats he made to our daughters made them feel unsafe, and the things we heard infuriated us.As the details of what was going on became more and more shocking, my beautiful, devout wife and I became increasingly angry, and we weren’t alone. Other parents were keeping their daughters home from school until the school took action and expelled the student. We were among those leading the charge, and we pushed hard.

Eventually, finally, the student was kicked out of school. And I was relieved. Order was restored in our little utopia.

But my wife, being the amazing, caring woman that she is, never felt that relief. From the start, despite being upset and worried about Olivia, she worried too for this student’s life at home. What sixth-grader knows the things he knows and talks the way he talks? There had to be a reason he was acting this way, she thought. Her concern for him was deep and true.Frankly, my concern was for my daughter’s safety first and her innocence second, and while I knew she could never unhear what that classmate told her, I was relieved that there would be no more damage. Whatever happens to the kid who was expelled was his parents’ concern, not mine, I thought.

But that feeling has faded, and my wife’s constant concern for this boy has seeped into my conscience.

That brings me to Wednesday and to Pope Francis. It brings me to mercy — and to children.

“The Church offers her maternal care to all children and their families, and she brings them the blessing of Jesus,” he said. “May we always care for our children, not counting the cost, so that they may never believe themselves to be mistakes, but always know their infinite worth.”

When he said “our children,” I didn’t take it to mean only the four sleeping under our roof, whose diapers I’ve changed and whose names I helped pick. I took “our children” to mean society’s children. “May we always care for our children,” he said.

And I thought about this boy whom I disliked, who was threatening my daughter and her friends. And I thought about how we threw him away. And I thought about Pope Francis and mercy.

Once where there was only certainty that we did the right thing, there is now doubt. Yes, he had several opportunities to assimilate to the school’s standards. Yes, he was threatening students. But where would he be better off — as just another troubled kid walking the halls of a godless school, or wrapped in warmth and love in a community where Christ and his teachings are lived out (or are supposed to be)?

But we justified our actions. Our school, which doesn't have a counselor, wasn't equipped to deal with this student's problems. He'll get better help elsewhere, we said. And maybe we weren't wrong.

My daughter felt unsafe, and it is our job to protect her. But did we miss an opportunity to change a kid’s life for the better, to be the face of Christ to him and his family? How much were we supposed to put up with? Where is the line between justice and mercy?

Children, the pope said, “can never be considered a mistake. The mistake is the world of adults.”

I fear that we made a mistake, for we showed little mercy. And while I can’t apologize for making my daughter a priority, this young boy will be in our prayers for a long, long time.

Scott Warden is the associate editor of OSV Newsweekly. Follow him on Twitter @Scott_OSV.
For more of Scott's Confessions of a Catholic Dad, click here.