Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I.

Living in compartments

September 23, 2012

To mark the 10th anniversary of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, in which the U.S. bishops promised that any bishop, priest or deacon who had ever abused a child would not be permitted to minister publicly, the Archdiocesan Office for the Protection of Children and Youth recently organized and sponsored a Mass for healing (see coverage on Page 36). The Mass, like others before it, was celebrated at Holy Family Church on Roosevelt Road because the Archdiocesan Healing Garden is adjacent to the church building. It was a beautiful and moving occasion. Present were some of those who have been abused and members of their families, those associated with the victims’ assistance ministry, priests and many of those who oversee the VIRTUS training that has helped tens of thousands of church employees and volunteers who are responsible for children in the church. They have been and continue to be trained to be alert to the signs of sexual abuse in a child’s life.

The readings from Holy Scripture were taken from the Book of Lamentations and from the Gospel according to St. Matthew, chapter five, the Beatitudes. The Lamentations express the plight of those exiled from the Promised Land; in exile, they could not be themselves nor worship God in his temple. With lives torn apart, what is left are heart wrenching cries: “My eyes will flow without ceasing; I am tormented by the sight of all the daughters of my city; my enemies snared me as though I were a bird; the waters flowed over my head; I am lost; I am wronged.” The Lamentations are placed in the voice of a single person, divided from himself, isolated and alone.

By contrast, the Beatitudes are about people in community, in relationship to one another and to God: “Blessed are they … for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, they will inherit the land, they will be satisfied, they will be shown mercy, they will see God.” In bad times, each of us is on his or her own; in good times, we are together. Life is a balance between Lamentations and Beatitudes. In the good times, we remember that life is always dangerous and we need to keep our balance. In the bad times, we take comfort in recalling that God’s goodness endures forever, that we are not in a trap and that hope sustains us at all times.

Those we asked God to bless at the Healing Mass are involved in a ministry that tries, with God’s grace, to help victims of sexual abuse to escape a trap, to find a balance in life. Speaking with victims, even years after they were abused, is like watching a box being opened. Many victims lead a good life, a life filled with normal concerns about family and job. The abuse is kept in a separate compartment, sealed — until it isn’t. Once opened, for any reason, achieving balance and finding healing presents a deep challenge addressed by those involved with the victims’ assistance ministry.

Strangely, talking with perpetrators is sometimes a similar experience. The abuse they perpetrated is kept sealed away in some corner of their consciousness. They do many good things, especially as priests: baptize, counsel and console the troubled, attend the dying, celebrate with a bride and groom; but lurking somewhere behind all these normal dimensions of priestly ministry is the crime of abusing a minor child, destroying trust and betraying the priestly vocation. Many seem to need to keep that box closed, lest they be destroyed. When I ask a perpetrator if he will apologize personally to the person he abused years ago, the response is usually negative. It’s an encounter that would, it seems, destroy whatever precarious balance he has achieved in life.

Therefore the church as a whole, in particular the bishops, needs to apologize. The Healing Garden has been conceived as a permanent public apology — to the victims of abuse and to the church herself and the lay faithful who have also been victimized in this crime and scandal. The box is opened and must remain so; now we have to continue to pursue the balance necessary to both recognize the evil and attend to the victims and also maintain the mission of the church and see to her good governance by bishops and priests. Only God can turn evil into good. Christ takes on our sinfulness, he lives in our boxes; but he transforms evil by living through it and taking its consequences into his own sinless life. With him, we too live through it, assured of God’s mercy.

There are ways to live through it together: the Masses and public apologies and acts of reparation; the diocesan and parish audits, the VIRTUS programs, the counseling, the accompanying, so no one is isolated or left trapped. As God’s people, we cannot forget this grave sin, but neither can we live trapped in its consequences as if there were no hope.

Facing what has happened in the church can also provide a warning about living our lives with integrity. Integrity means everything is together; there are no separate boxes and isolated compartments. An adulterer tries to keep his affair separate from his family life; but the box is inevitably opened and the challenge of restoring balance is before an entire family. If this is true in personal experience, it is just as true in our civil lives. A believer in a secularized society is told to keep his or her faith in a box on Sunday and live the rest of the week as if God does not exist. The government itself might insist that believers are free to worship but not free to bring their faith into their entire lives. Freedom of religion means faith is not to be kept in a box, by law or by manipulation of popular opinion.

God calls everyone to holiness here and to fullness of life with him forever. There can be no boxes in our relationship to God, and we are therefore called to confess our sins with integrity. In lives mixed with sorrow and joy, throughout our entire lives, it is God who listens to our laments and who assures us that we are blessed. God bless you.