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Healing of sexual abuse found in Gospel

By Kiply Lukan Yaworski


SASKATOON - Using images of diagnosis, prescription and healing at a recent diocesan Study Day in Saskatoon, Sister Nuala Kenny, MD, explored the causes and harm caused by the clergy sexual abuse crisis in the church, and possible ways forward.

The pediatrician, ethicist and member of the Sisters of Charity, Halifax, is the author of Healing the Church: Diagnosing and Treating the Clergy Abuse Crisis.

Kenny was a member of the commission of enquiry that investigated the Mount Cashel Orphanage cases after they first brought the issue of sexual abuse of minors by clergy to light in Canada. She also assisted in the preparation of the Canadian Catholic Conference of Bishops 1992 document From Pain to Hope, which prompted dioceses across the country to begin to address the issue.

Dealing with this crisis must involve much more than setting up policies and procedures, Kenny said, challenging her listeners to a path of change and conversion, calling for the entire church to end denial, secrecy and clericalism, to support each other in love and mutuality, and find solutions in the Gospel and the example of Jesus Christ.

"Structural change isn't worth the paper it is written on if there is not a spiritual conversion," she told parish representatives and ministry leaders gathered for the Oct. 22 Study Day at the Cathedral of the Holy Family.

"Unless we hear the truth, we cannot be free; unless things are taken out of the darkness and into the light, we are not following the way of Christ in dealing with sin and failure," she said during a day-long presentation that was peppered throughout with quotations from Pope Francis and others who have reflected on the issue.

Beginning her presentation with an image of Jesus welcoming the little children, and a reflection on Christ's harsh words for those who would harm these "little ones," Kenny stressed, "From beginning to end, healing the church from this crisis has to be rooted in Jesus himself."

Kenny asserted that St. John Paul II expressed the "deep diagnosis" of exactly what the clergy sexual abuse of minors is all about when he said, "Sexual abuse within the church is a profound contradiction of the teaching and witness of Christ."

She noted that the crisis has two components - first the great harm done to children and youth by individual priests who abuse power and trust, and second, the inadequate and sinful response of church leadership mired in denial, who too often, and in every part of the world, have minimized the harm, engaged in secrecy to protect the reputation of the institution, marginalized whistle blowers, and given more care and attention to offenders than to victims.

In her overview of the crisis, Kenny stressed its global nature, and detailed the many harms caused by the sexual abuse of children and youth by Catholic clergy - harms to victims and to the church as a whole. The issue of sexual abuse by clergy is a long-standing one, she said, refuting those who would say this is about "sexual freedom of the 70s playing out in the church," adding that many cases pre-date the so-called sexual revolution, revealed 40 or 50 years after they happened. Kenny noted that an increased awareness about the reality of sexual abuse in the broader culture coincides with cases in the church coming to light. "When I did my pediatric residency in the 70s, we knew hardly anything about sexual abuse," she noted. "The church fit in with society paying no attention to these issues until the 70s and 80s."

Citing a range of sources, Kenny examined the conditions that would make it possible for someone to offend sexually against a child, as well as exploring research about the crime, noting that the commonest person to sexually offend against a child or youth is a member of their own family or someone that they have a close relationship with, such as a coach or youth leader. Offenders are overwhelmingly male, and the rate of offence among clergy is the same as it is for the general population, about four to six per cent. "The sexual abuse of minors, of children and youth is an abuse of power and trust in the realm of sexuality," Kenny said. "For almost all victims there are substantial lifelong effects: physical harm, emotional and psychological, including an incredible incidence of suicide, as victims who are survivors grapple with this over their lifetime."

These harms to the victim are compounded in cases of clergy sexual abuse by the spiritual damage, she said. "When the offender is a Ôman of God,' when the offender is Ôalter Christus,' we have not only the loss of trust in a father or a figure of authority, but it is a loss of trust in God," said Kenny. For Catholics in general, the sexual abuse crisis has caused a huge loss of trust in church leadership, even the loss of faith and a terrible cynicism. "The victims were first and foremost the young people, but something bigger has happened here, and we have to understand that if we are going to work on healing." The harm caused by the sexual abuse crisis includes innocent priests who are pre-judged for the offences of a few, and who are now hampered in their interactions with youth and others, "pulling away from all kinds of emotional interaction, because they don't want to be put in a situation of risk," said Kenny.

Priests who need more loving and warm support, not less, are experiencing even greater isolation and stress because of the effects of the clergy abuse crisis, she stressed, urging her listeners to find new and constructive ways to walk in friendship and support with priests and bishops. The roots of the crisis and how it was mishandled can be found in a church culture that held priests and bishops in an unrealistic high esteem, placing them on pedestals and conferring power and authority in a way that leaves all-too-human men without support or accountability, said Kenny. "The crisis is a crisis of power, authority, transparency, accountability and compassion in the culture and practices of the church."

Individual priests who offended against children are morally responsible for those crimes, she stressed. "But to understand how this happened, and how we have managed it, you have to put the individual priest in the context of his formation, of the culture which supports him, the culture of laity which interacts with him, and the culture of the church."

Pope Francis has described clericalism as a great evil in the church - an evil that laity all too often go along with and are part of, because it's easier than fully living their baptismal responsibility in a spirit of mutuality, she described.

Kenny stressed the need for Catholics to find ways to love and support their priests and bishops, in a constructive and loving spirit of mutuality, to find a healthier way of relating to each other, and for all to truly live their baptismal call.

The "prescription" for the sexual abuse crisis and the harm it has done to the church will be found in the Gospel - as Pope Francis continually articulates, Kenny said. It calls for all of us "to be truthful, to bring things out into the open, to be supportive, to recognize and respond to the weakness in ourselves and in each other."

She concluded: "The one element that we cannot underestimate is dialogue: finding new ways to talk together, finding new ways of being responsible together, because the denial and secrecy has been what has killed us on this issue."

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