As Christians enter Holy Week, the most solemn and yet wonderful time of year on their calendar, there is always a sense of waiting followed by great joy. Easter, much more than Christmas, is the most important holiday, the one that confirms their faith through reenacting the passion of Christ leading up to what they believe is his rising from the dead. During this special time, hearts open wide and there is a great sense of community and unity for Christians.
Pope Francis, as leader of Catholics numbering approximately 1.2 billion worldwide, is cognizant of the significance of this time and its meaning, and because of this he sent a personal and rather heartfelt message to the world. He asked for forgiveness for Catholic clergy who committed sexual abuse. On Vatican radio the Pope said, “I feel compelled to personally take on all the evil which some priests, (quite a few in number, obviously not compared to the number of all the priests) to personally ask for forgiveness for the damage they have done for having sexually abused children.”
The Pope promised in his talk “sanctions that must be imposed” (on those who committed these horrific acts) and even mentioned “sanctioning bishops” who may have contributed to the situation by either turning a blind eye or shuffling the priests off to assignments in other places.
As a Catholic who has been greatly discouraged by the scandals involving priests abusing children, I feel this is a welcome step; however, it is certainly more a “first step” than a solution. We can think about “sanctions” and wonder what they will entail. Do sanctions remove the offending priests from places with any contact with children? Or will there be more severe penalties?
To his credit Francis did appoint “an eight-member committee — a mix of clergy and laypeople, including a sexual abuse survivor — to advise the church on how to protect children, punish abusers and train church staff.” Obviously, the crucial thing is protecting the children in every way possible, and training is an excellent and necessary component for everyone who works or volunteers for the church; however, the punishment part is the thing that the Vatican still hasn’t approached in a realistic and essential way.
Anyone who saw the film Doubt understands that priests who are accused of abuse are usually reprimanded behind closed doors (very tightly closed ones). The parish only learns of the priest’s departure “for another assignment” and that is supposed to end that. Unfortunately, weeks or months later that priest will once again be “reassigned,” and that in itself continues a pattern that enables more children and their families to suffer.
Over the years I have spoken to children and their families who have experienced this unthinkable behavior from a man that they trusted. One of the most common things is that they want to be certain that another child and family does not suffer as they have, but the most salient thing I have heard is that they want “justice.”
They don’t want internal “sanctions” and things of that nature; they want the priest to be defrocked to remove him from ever being in a position to harm others. They also demand that the offending priests be turned over to the authorities and charged for their crimes. Those are the things that I have heard from real families, and the Vatican should be listening to them more than appointing committees. It doesn’t take any committee to know that the punishment should be jail time.
We Christians believe in “forgiveness,” and the Pope asks us to pray and forgive these monsters as we enter Holy Week. Good Christians will think “What would Jesus do?” and they know he would forgive the sinner, and perhaps we should all pray for them and forgive them, but that does not mean forgetting – now or ever.
In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus is depicted as exhausted after a long day of preaching. A group of children come along and want to visit with him, but the disciples try to keep them away. Upon seeing the children, Jesus says, “Let the children come to me.” In this and other passages Jesus displays his love and appreciation of their innocence. He calls for adults to be like children, and through the scripture we are inspired to be as Jesus was with the children – loving, caring, and protective.
We can accept forgiveness for these abusers, but justice still must be served, and that includes removing these men from the priesthood, identifying them for the authorities, and assisting in the cases in order to convict and sentence them. If the church cooperates in this fashion, then talk of “sanctions” won’t be seen as window dressing as some people see it know. It will be known that the church is truly committed to protecting children in a necessary and compelling way.
I think Pope Francis means well, that he wants to right the many wrongs, but even as leader of the church he has constraints that restrict his actions. Meanwhile, priests that have committed these acts are still free. This is a very difficult thing for families of victims to accept. Pope Francis has taken a first step, but he has miles to go before he can even think that his job is done.
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