The Examined Life
...and what we’ve failed to do

The abuse crisis will never be over without a full confession and a freely given absolution.

The people of God in Los Angeles experienced collective jaw-drop in July when the archdiocese announced the largest sex-abuse settlement in U.S. history. Paying out $660 million to settle 508 claims, the archdiocese avoided costly litigation, which was to begin the next day.

Accompanying the announcement came the expected court-negotiated apology, delivered by Cardinal Roger Mahony before a phalanx of media. “I apologize to anyone who has been offended, who has been abused.... It should not have happened and should not ever happen again.”

Victims responded with the perhaps understandable accusation that the settlement was simply a way for the archbishop to avoid damning testimony about how he handled (or didn’t handle) accusations of child sexual abuse. With almost 600 victims and more than 200 offenders, someone obviously was asleep at the wheel.

Though the spectacular L.A. settlement may begin to bring the curtain down on the court-and-media phase of the sex abuse crisis, the tragedy of child sexual abuse is not going away. We can hope that the measures put into place since the scandal broke in 2002 have made child protection a priority. We are at least on the way to making our church a safer place for children.

What we have still not found, however, is a formula for bringing closure to the crisis itself. While money, information, and attempted apologies have gone some distance toward reconciliation, this tragedy continues to run on two parallel tracks. From the beginning, victims and their advocates, frustrated by dioceses, turned to the courts and the media. Bishops, forced to action by public outrage, responded with the institutional changes found in the 2002 Dallas Charter.

Lost in the shuffle is the fact that the whole church—victims, their advocates, bishops and other leaders, and the rest of the baptized—has yet to sit down together to find a way forward. The great scandal here is that a community whose lifeblood is charity has been duking it out for five years for all the world to see. Surely we can do better.

What we really need is what the victims have been asking for all along: the unedited truth. What really happened? Who knew what and when? Why did they act or fail to act?

This painful conversation will require a lot of give on all sides. Bishops will have to sideline attorneys and their own fear to acknowledge obvious failure. Victims will have to tone down their rhetoric and accept as the “whole” truth the stories the bishops finally tell. Both sides will have to agree upon a process for handling accusations in the future. Such diocese-by-diocese “truth and reconciliation commissions” may sound a bit far-fetched—and they would be messy—but if they can work in places like post-apartheid South Africa and post-civil war Guatemela, we can do it, too.

Such an accounting would not, of course, preclude paying legitimate damages to future victims, nor would every bishop come out still wearing his miter. But all of us would benefit from a confession freely given rather than coerced through legal machinations and media sensationalism. We may indeed find, as Jesus promises, that the truth will make us free.

One thing more would be required. After all, confession and contrition are followed by absolution and penance. In the ancient church, those who had sinned publicly had to seek reconciliation publicly. Clothed in sackcloth, they stood outside the church on Sunday asking for prayers and forgiveness. Reconciled on Holy Thursday, only then could they join the assembly for the Easter Triduum.

Such a liturgy would be far more satisfying than recent services featuring bishops fully clad in liturgical finery, sitting alone in the pews hearing scriptures about repentance. Standing outside their own cathedrals, or perhaps parishes most affected by this crisis, those same bishops—along with priests, church workers, and the rest of us who should have sounded the alarm but didn’t—could ask forgiveness, one by one, from abuse victims, from their advocates, from the whole People of God, who in turn, we hope, could offer pardon. Perhaps then, as those who have confessed and been forgiven, we could all gather at one table.

Bryan Cones is associate editor of U.S. Catholic. This article appeared in the September 2007 (Volume 72, Number 9; page 8) issue of U.S. Catholic.

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