Thursday, June 10, 2010

Abuse and Healing in the Church

In November of 2008, newly-elected Bishop Jonah of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) addressed a general assembly of clergy and laity with the words, “We have been raped.”

He was speaking in reference to a scandal that spanned over thirty years, involving financial corruption, from misappropriation of funds to shady loan schemes to plain old thievery. The persons involved were highly-ranked: the Chancellor himself was defrocked and two leading Bishops were forcibly retired as a result.

One of the questions we asked was, how could the misconduct have flourished for so long without being noticed? The answer was painfully simple. People knew of the abuses, but chose to maintain and even uphold a culture of silence and denial, in which absolute obedience to the ecclesiastical authorities was upheld as paramount, and anything like dissension was suppressed with guilt and threats.

In many ways, our Church was like a dysfunctional family in which one or both of the parents are abusive and everyone else is forced to toe the standard party line that “what happens in the family, stays in the family.”

What changed in the OCA? Much to the chagrin of those who wanted to keep everything “in the family,” a few individuals spoke out and refused to be silenced. The Internet acted as a powerful tool by which the curtains of secrecy were thrown open, allowing the light of honesty and truth to finally shine through.

Once the word was out, the demands for obedience, the accusations of disloyalty and threats of exclusion could no longer contain it. The people of God kept on demanding the truth until newly-elected Bishop Jonah spoke those words that we so desperately needed to hear before we could heal: “We have been raped.”

I recount these events because they are awfully reminiscent of the current explosion of sexual scandal throughout the Roman Catholic Church. Being unaffiliated with Rome, I cannot and will not presume to judge their situation. What I can do is share my own experience with analogical situations in our Church—the lessons we have learned, the struggles we continue to face as we deal with the fallout—and leave it to you to draw your own conclusions as to how they might apply to the Roman Catholic situation today.

Reflection on the situation of the OCA, I see two larger questions. Firstly and most immediately, there is the question of how to reconcile the abusers and their victims. Second, there is the question of what changes need to be made in a corrupt ecclesiastical culture to ensure that such abuses will never again be tolerated.

Regarding the first question, my personal experience of the OCA scandal has convinced me that there can be no active forgiveness for those who raped the Church unless they repent, by which I mean, offer a genuine apology, and demonstrate the intention to make real and concrete amends to those they hurt. In my opinion, it also means a willingness to face civil justice, and whatever consequences that may involve...

But aren’t we supposed to forgive, regardless of the other person’s attitude? Our leaders sometimes fall prey to the temptation of calling us to excuse crimes without any initiative for repentance from the criminals involved. In response, I ask you to consider the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:23-35.

A master forgives his servant an impossible fortune. This same servant then refuses to forgive a fellow servant a paltry debt. Jesus condemns his refusal to forgive and enjoins us to forgive each other from the heart. He only does so, however, on the assumption that someone is saying, “Have patience with me...” In the parable, the master actually repeals his original forgiveness, because he sees that his servant could not have repented of his own immense indiscretion if he could not forgive another who owed far less.

Simply put, you cannot forgive an abuser who does not want to be forgiven. Have you tried hugging someone who doesn’t want to hug you back? It’s a cold and uncomfortable experience. Have you ever said to someone, “I forgive you,” only to have them look at you defiantly and reply, “Forgive me for what?”

Forgiveness is the embrace of reconciliation of God to humanity, and one person to another. For this reason, it is not possible to forgive those offenders who beg for a simple transfer, a retirement without consequences, who say that they “regret what happened” without actually saying, “I’m sorry that I did this.” Why? Because they either don’t know they need embracing, or simply don’t want to be embraced, period.

This being said, we as victims still need to be willing to forgive. After we have grieved for the crimes committed against us—a process which naturally includes denial and anger and depression—we need to come to the place where we are willing to see within ourselves the capacity for the evil actions we see at work in others. We need to seek for others the embrace that we would have for ourselves, even if they will not embrace us. The words that Jesus spoke on the Cross--"Father, forgive them for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34)--must become our words, even if our forgiveness is not reciprocated.

Whether or not the financial, moral or sexual abusers in our churches repent, we must engage in this process of becoming willing to forgive, individually and communally, if we are going to find true healing. Even if we cannot embrace those who have raped us (because they won’t), we must work to let go of their psychic grip on us, or their rape will continue in our souls until there is nothing left but a hollow shell where a human being used to be.

More next time.

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