Forgiveness and Freedom: Sexual Abuse (Main Forum)
So. I know a little bit about sexual abuse. Well, not me personally. I mean, not as part of my own childhood. But I know about it because it happened to two of my three children. Until all the hoopla about the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic church came up, I thought I was far past any anger or resentment about what happened to my children, but I was SO wrong! This post is about getting beyond the anger. It’s about forgiveness, from my own experience. We humans lie to ourselves so well and so thoroughly. We think we have everything under control, but we don’t. The anger and the outrage of so many in the Catholic scandals have brought me face to face with my own limitations. Forgiving is what we, or rather, God, does to give us, as individuals, freedom from the past. It takes place in our own hearts. It does not excuse the reality of the wrong. It does not involve forgetting. It is also not the same thing as reconciliation, which involves the person who committed the wrong being accountable for the hurtful behavior and making amends. You can’t force reconciliation. You can accept the grace of forgiveness. I pray every day for that grace in my own life, in the lives of my children, and in the lives of all those who have been so deeply harmed by any institutionalized church, school or government. Without it, the victims are victims forever. With it, the victims become the victors.
I wasn’t raised a Catholic. I was raised the daughter of a Seventh-Day-Adventist pastor and teacher. I went to SDA schools until I graduated from college the first time in 1978. Then, I went all haywire and married an SDA scion.
The man I married was, short of dropping names, descendant of a big cereal family. Both he and a substantial number of his cereal progenitors, were . . . well, whacky. Ever seen the movie, “Road to Wellville?” Check it out sometime. It’s a corker. The man I married was the older sibling of a childhood friend. The family was very liberal by SDA standards. Their kids got to do all kinds of things my parents wouldn’t let me do. I thought that was pretty neat. They were also pretty smart, in a socio-pathological kind of way. One time, four of their eight kids showed up at our door on a frigid, rainy October Michigan night. The youngest was an infant. My husband-to-be had been playing chicken with them in the cornfield across from our house, trying to run them down with a car. Like I said, whacky.
But they had a good game going, these folks. They had clearly convinced themselves, and they certainly convinced me, that they were superior: superior to me, to everyone in our “rules-based” community, and probably to God Herself. I believed it. Then I grew up and went to SDA college and somehow, managed to find the guy who’d been driving the car in the cornfield. I forgot about that little incident when he convinced me, based on his extensive knowledge of who I’d been as a child, that he was my “soul-mate.” Jeez! What a joke! I was 21 and he was 31. He knew everything about what made me tick. I thought I’d found the love of my life. His father (NOT of the cereal dynasty) warned me. He said, “If you marry him, you will regret it for the rest of your life.” But what did he know? Right? He didn’t know that I could love ANYONE out of ANYTHING (and Lucifer said, “I will be like God.”).
His father was right.
Fast forward to Easter Vigil 2010. Meanwhile, I’ve become a Catholic. My dear Andy Greeley had it right when he said some folks have a Catholic imagination and some have a Protestant imagination. I had the former.
With many missteps, I more or less raised my kids to be Catholic. I remarried a cradle Catholic (his religion, my faith) and my oldest child was confirmed, then promptly stopped attending church and began investigating witchcraft. The next week it was Buddhism. The next week it was voodoo. Both she and my middle child had been horribly abused by the Scion of the Cereal Dynasty. The simple fact is, we will never know exactly what happened to my children. They remember him reading “Mein Kampf” to them. He gave them drugs when they were barely toddlers. And then there was the sexual abuse. They have never been able to get past what happened. They both suffer from severe emotional distress. I can’t blame them.
The law took them out of the hands of the man who called himself their father when they were 4 and 6. They’ve had more therapy than any child should ever have. They’ve been given every opportunity to heal. It’s been a very rocky road. Sometimes, it seems they will never really heal. But there are hopeful signs.
As my daughter and I walked to the Easter fire this year, we talked about the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic church. About how the media are making such a big deal of the “Catholic” crisis, and how it isn’t denominational, but cultural. It comes from thinking we own our children, rather than understanding that we are here to serve them. My daughter told me all the news about the “Catholic” crisis had inspired her to do a web search of SDA abuse. She said she’d found multiple sites that sounded a lot like the Vatican message. “Suck it up.” “Move on.” “Get over it.” She said it was the fourth or fifth link that led her to a group dedicated to helping victims of SDA clergy abuse.
Next morning, in meditation, I found the gospel of Luke (Luke 6:27-37). Jesus tells me to love my enemies. To do good to those who hate and abuse me. To bless those who curse me. That as I wish others would do to me, so I should do to them. To give without expecting return. Never to judge another human person. To forgive as I would wish to be forgiven. What the HELL was He talking about?
I got to thinking about the horror my own children, and all those other victims of abuse, clerical or otherwise, have suffered. All the little ones. The ones about whom Christ said, “If anyone harms one of these, it would be better for him if a millstone were hanged around his neck and he were thrown into the depths of the sea.” That’s how I used to think about my cereal ex, or anyone else who hurt these precious little ones. After all my “enlightening” life’s experiences, I found a lot of anger and judgment still lurking under the surface.
And then, I realized what the hell He was talking about was me. I remembered something I’d read by a very wise Buddhist writer. She’d said that forgiveness isn’t about excusing the harm or forgetting that it happened. It was about freeing oneself from being bound by the harm of the past. You do that by recognizing that the person who harmed you has one thing in common with you. He or she is human. Infinitesimally small and uniquely precious.
I remembered a photo of the cereal whacko. But he wasn’t a whacko in the photo. He was a little boy. About four years old. And the look in those eyes was full of such pain. The same pain I’d seen in the eyes of my own children after he’d hurt them. Human. Limited. Frail.
Wrong? You bet he was! But still, human. By the grace of God, I learn to forgive him a little more every day. As for my children, they have to find their own way to this place of peace and freedom.
There are lots of other occasions I’ve had to be righteously indignant about the wrongs another person has done to me, or to someone I love. Some things worse than what the cereal magnate did to my kids. Like selfishness that amounted to murder. I’m not anywhere near forgiving those folks. But I offer up my small self every day to God to give me the heart I need to do so. And even when I can’t find anything close to forgiveness, I remember what another friend told me. That if you can’t find any common humanity with someone who has wronged you, you can still pray that he or she comes to know the value of him- or herself in the eyes of God, in this world, or the next.
Forgiveness is available to each of us. It is between us and God, not us and the person who wronged us. Forgiveness is not forgetting. It is freedom. Desmond Tutu, who has seen and experienced plenty of wrong in his own life and that of his people, has written eloquently on the freedom forgiveness can bring. You can find his wisdom at: http://www.writespirit.net/authors/desmond_tutu/desmond-tutu-on-forgiveness
There is no minimizing the harm that happens to children who have been abused by suggesting that forgiveness is possible, or even necessary. God knows, I’ve lived with the anger for a very long time, and perhaps, will live with it, in both this world and the next. But there IS hope for victims. There IS a way for them to find peace and freedom from the pain of the past. And that way is forgiveness. My prayer is for all the children who have been victimized by sexual violence, that they find the grace to know the Person who heals all ills and who stands in the place of any figure of authority, parent, priest, pastor or teacher, and contends on behalf of His little ones, and through His spirit, to find forgiveness for those who have wronged them and freedom from the pain of their past.
Dawn Elaine, thank you very much..............
........for this great post, which must not have been easy to give us but which, I do hope, helps you.
It is family women from whom our clergy, and we, need to hear because you have a wisdom not given others.
I hope I do not appear presuming but I welcome you to Catholica, to join the brave women here, and I hope being here brings you some comfort.
Forgiveness and Freedom: Sexual Abuse
Welcome, Dawn Elaine - I haven't seen a post from you before. Your wisdom is already improving my day. I admire and love the way you are not trying to sweeten the ugly, but to find true freedom and peace beyond it. I'm afraid, in spite of how clearly you say what you mean, that some people will read you as trying to lessen the guilt and the harm, or that you are criticising the anger they cannot yet deal with; but you will understand if not everyone can yet see the way to peace and freedom that you are finding.
It's a hard road, but I believe you are right about its destination. I have read similar explorations from people who have had children murdered, who have gained freedom and peace from seeking to forgive (tho they will never forget) the crime they have suffered.
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet. - Gerard Manley Hopkins
Forgiveness and Freedom: Sexual Abuse
Dawn, thanks for this so deeply moving personal testimony. I'm going to put a special link to it in the index of your previous commentaries. I'm still holding the earlier one you sent me and have been planning to run it in the coming week (probably Friday or Saturday next) now that we're nearly finished the series on Future Priest.
I still struggle with this issue of forgiving a person whose has transgressed against you and who is incapable of owning up to the wrong they did and apologised. You exploration of the theme offers much for long meditation. Thanks so much for sharing it with us.
Brian Coyne[Editor & Publisher]
Forgiving frees me
A long story, Dawn Elaine. But a bigger message. You got me when you looked into the hard saying of Jesus (Luke 6): love your enemies...
You wrote: 'And then, I realized what the hell He was talking about was me.'
Forgiveness and Freedom: Sexual Abuse
Welcome to Catholica, Dawn and thank you for your personal story/reflection. It is good to know that you are moving forward with your life, understanding that there are seasons for everything.
Unfortunately, for many, this healing doesn't come so graciously and quickly. This is because of the secrecy that often surrounds these abuse cases, as is so often the case within the Catholic Church. Victims were often not even able to tell their parents, simply because they did not want to bring shame, or often these parents simply did not believe them. I also know of people that have been abused outside of the church, but because of the identication of it at an early stage, they were able to restore their lives, and as the old adage goes, "get over it". Whilst there remains a culture of clerical abuse that has been constantly ignored and covered up within the church, these victims will continue to find great difficulty in finding their wholeness, if that is possible, but at least the peace they so desperately crave over the resolution of such cases. And whilst there remains a leader who purports to be the moral authority in the world, then our job as mothers (and fathers), is far from over, lest we see this abuse continue on the innocents, our children. This is not about hate, but about finding the kind of justice that Jesus himself would have wanted. Do you not agree? Until such a time happens, there will not be a season of forgiveness for many people within the church.
Forgiveness and Freedom: Sexual Abuse
My kids aren't the only family members who have suffered sexual abuse. My little sister was abused by at least three SDA church "elders" over the years, and until she was 18 kept it to herself. She didn't want to cause our parents, especially my dad, who was a pastor and leader in the churches where these men worked, the pain of knowing that those church leaders they had trusted would do such awful things to their children.
My sister still struggles with her experience. It affects her self-worth, her ability to have a vibrant and happy marriage, and has made her an overly protective mother, no doubt in an attempt to keep her children from the harm she herself suffered. From my armchair, "big sister" perspective, she still blames herself for the abuse. Because she can't forgive herself, she can't forgive those who abused her, and the trauma still controls her life. Accountability is indeed critical, primarily to stop further abuse. Personal accountability is probably impossible for those who cause this harm because rarely do they see what they did as wrong. That's why it is so important for civil authority to step in, force public accountability, and do what it can do (usually not even that is enough) to protect other children from abuse. And when one lives in a "closed system," such as the Catholic, or SDA or Mormon or Orthodox Jewish faiths have built up, the potential for harm is simply much greater because the system works to protect its members from civil intervention. Every one of them does the same thing.
As for the involvement of the current pope and other church leaders, I guess I never have really seen them as "moral leaders." Probably because I'm a convert. In one Catholic discussion group with which some of you may be familiar, we had a lengthy discussion about whether members saw the pope as the infallible moral leader traditional Catholicism teaches. Many of the group did not. I'd be very interested to hear from the theologians in the group on this topic.
I suppose I see this crisis as a necessary (to borrow a phrase from my SDA past) "shaking" in the Church. Necessary to shake out what is not helpful, both in belief and in those individuals who undertake to put themselves or the institutional church in the place of God and the community of believers.
Just my own possibly heretical viewpoint (grin!)
Obedience and Freedom
Dawn-Elaine said – “As for .. the current Pope and other Church Leaders, I guess I never have really seen them as `moral leaders’ – probably because I’m a convert.”
I “envy” converts. Being a “Cradle Catholic” – I was not present at my own “Christening” – not consciously so. Only 3 weeks “old” at the time, I remember absolutely nothing about my own Baptism. I didn’t ask to be Christened. I was more than 5 when my father introduced me to the Holy Name of “Jesus” and my mother to His “Sacred Heart.” I was about 7 when Josephite Sisters of Blessed [soon to the Saint] Mary MacKillop introduced me to Jesus as the “Bridegroom of my Soul.” At my “Confirmation” in Warwick at age 13 as a Christian of the Roman Catholic variety, we were more aware of “taking the Pledge” than of being “Baptised in the Spirit.” Born in 1888, Basil Roper was Bishop of Toowoomba during 1938-52 and then “resigned” for reasons unknown to the Laity. He died 12 years later, aged 76. His successor – Bishop Bill Brennan [Senior] attended Vatican Council II [1962-65] but allegedly slept during most of the proceedings. “Carefully” hemmed in by the local “Praetorian Guard” [aka Knights of the Southern Cross], he died in 1975, aged 70.
DAWN continued – “In one Catholic discussion group .. we had a lengthy discussion about whether members saw the Pope as the infallible moral leader traditional Catholicism teaches. Many of the group did not.”
Papal Infallibility – as such – applies only when a Pope – acting “ex cathedra” - dogmatically defines a doctrine as “binding” on the conscience of every Catholic. Since the Solemn Declaration of Papal Infallibility by Vatican Council I on 18 Juky 1870, this power has been used only once. In 1950 Pope Pius XII defined “The Assumption of Mary” as an “Article of Faith” for Roman Catholics. Prior to 1870 – Pope Pius IX [supported by the vast majority of Catholic Bishops] had proclaimed “The Immmaculate Conception of Mary” as an “ex cathedra” dogma of the Church in December 1854.
Apart from such infallible declarations, Catholics are expected to be OBEDIENT [“ob-audire” – to heed or listen] to our Popes- and to the Voice of Conscience. Likewise – our Popes are expected to heed or listen not only to what the Spirit is saying to the churches, but also to the Laity – not least through the least of Christ’s brethren – in the “Cry of the Poor.”
DAWN continued – “I suppose I see this crisis as a necessary “shaking” in the Church – to borrow a phrase from my SDA past. – Necessary to shake out what is not helpful – both in belief and in those individuals who undertake to put themelves or the Institutional Church in the place of GOD and the Community of Believers. Just my own possibly heretical viewpoint [grin!]”
What you are saying, Dawn, is not “heretical.” Our God is the Great Icono-Clast or “Idol-Smasher” – “I shall make the Earth shake once more,” He says, “and not only the Earth but the Heavens as well” (Heb.12:26)
Obedience and Freedom
Thank you for your account, especially about "forgiveness". I have never experienced anything like what you have gone through, but I can still recall minor injustices of many years ago; I can't forget them, but I need to forgive, especially since those responsible have probably never thought about it at all, and resentment affects only me. God bless you in your journey.
I well remember the two bishops you mention. The first was surely the most arragant man I have ever met.
The second, who attended Vatican II, told us that the proceeding were secret, but "the Holy Father is lovely". I gathered from that that he didn't really know what was going on.
Obedience and Freedom
First settled by Europeans [Patrick Lelie et al] in 1840 the 188,279 square miles [487,456 sq km] of southern Queensland – from the Great Dividing Range west to the Northern Territory border – was “erected” as the Diocese of Toowoomba in 1929. Thanks to the pioneering priests, Sisters, Brothers and Catholic laymen and women – plus the Grace of God – the region was soon producing more “vocations” [to the Priesthood and Religious Life] than most other parts of Australia. During the time of Bishops Basil Roper and Bill Brennan Snr (1938-52; 1953-75), the Diocese supplied priests to several other parts of the nation [Western Australia etc] and even overseas. Any young priest expressing disquiet to the Bishop’s secretary after Vatican II was likely to find himself serving elsewhere. The Bishop reportedly stopped “reading theology” years ago – and advised his priests to do the same.
"First settled by Europeans [Patrick Lelie et al] in 1840"
That should have been "Patrick Leslie."
Roch, my great great grandfather, Josiah Dent was the first to pitch his tent at the junction of the two creeks ('Woombas')at what is now Toowoomba CBD. He started a business of selling reeds to others who were coming into the area and built a bark hut and put up travelers.
Thanks for all that you have written and especially now about forgiveness. Holding grievances is perhaps the greatest poison to the fullness of life that Jesus taught of.
My purpose is to remember the love that created me in God one with my brothers and sisters and with all life. My function is to extend that love and unity each moment to all.
Forgiveness and Freedom: Sexual Abuse
Thanks for sharing your journey.
With all the recent developments I decided a few days ago that it would be a useful time to re-read some of Bishop Geoffrey Robinson's writings.
Back in the late 90s he wrote an article "Spiritual Harm and Spiritual Healing in Cases of Sexual Abuse ".(This was susequently reworked and developed and appears as Chapter 11 in his 2007 book "Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church ".)In it he discusses forgiveness
I'll quote briefly from the original article:
" The origin of words can tell us much about their meaning.The Greek word in the gospels translated 'to forgive' has the more basic meaning of 'to leave behind ,to let be '.In relation to sexual abuse this does not mean to deny the abuse or the debt it created.It does not mean to forego attempts to have just debts paid.It does not mean to repress the memory or to prevent it rising to the conscious mind whenever this happens naturally.It means to come to the point where one is prepared to begin to leave the matter behind ,to let it be,to do nothing to deliberately raise the memories and the feelings they evoke"
He goes on to quote from a book 'Further Along the Road Less Travelled ' by M Scott Peck
"The process of forgiveness -indeed the chief reason for forgiveness -is selfish.The reason to forgive others is not for their sake .. The reason to forgive is for our own sake.For our own health.Because beyond that point needed for healing if we hold onto our anger ,we stop growing and our souls begin to shrivel "
In the Meditation at the end of ch 11 of his 2007 book Robinson writes:
"Sexual Abuse is a bulldozer gouging a road through the fragile ecosystem of love and meaning that a person has been painfully constructing...
In sexual abuse there is always spiritual harm , for the abuse always harms the person's sense of wholeness and connectedness ,and hence the person's sense of meaning and identity....
Spiritual healing means helping a person to be whole agin and to find a new world of meaning, a new set of satisfying answers to the basic questions of life , and this means a new set of persons ,objects ,activities and ideas that can be loved."