How should a Catholic respond to the awful abuse scandal?

Cardinal Marc Ouellet bows before a crucifix during a penitential vigil in Rome to show contrition for clerical sexual abuse (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Author and blogger Dawn Eden has given a thought-provoking interview to Catholic World Report. The title tells you why it caught my eye: “Learning that Catholics themselves were grieving over abuse… helped me to become more open to entering the Church.” What! Here is someone who in other articles discusses the sexual abuse she suffered as a child at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend and who eventually found healing in the very Church which has been at the forefront of sexual abuse scandals. It is a story that should be read by all thoughtful people whose natural, knee-jerk reaction is to rubbish the institution that in many cases concealed this depravity.

Asked by CWR how she coped with the “misplaced shame and guilt” of a survivor of abuse, Eden responded “When the adult who has internalised this misplaced guilt learns there is a saint who suffered similar wounds and whom the Church now acknowledges to be in heaven, then the adult can begin to feel free of this guilt and realize, “This abuse could not have been my sin.” For those who have been freed from such a burden, it is an enormously liberating experience.

Asked what a Catholic should do if he or she meets someone scarred by past sexual abuse, Eden responded simply that at first you have to “weep with those who weep”. This is the meaning of the word “compassion.” Then, you should pray for that person. This places the burden of suffering in the hands of God, ultimate author of all healing. Thirdly, she suggests you help the victim find a competent spiritual director who has experience of the particular spiritual wounds involved here, as well as a therapist, preferably a Catholic one or at least one who respects the faith of the patient. Eden makes the point that both are needed for a balanced approach, one that doesn’t over-emphasise one aspect at the expense of the other.

Eden became a Catholic in 2006, during the enormous publicity given to the Church’s involvement in sexual abuse scandals. What was her response to the question, “Was that a hurdle for you, in coming into a Church that was depicted in the media at least, as full of abusive priests and enabling bishops?” She replied that learning that Catholics themselves were grieving over the abuse helped her “to become more open to entering the Church”. Even more importantly, she was won over “by the Church’s consistent witness for the dignity of human life… When I saw the Church’s love for human life at every stage, particularly the Church’s unceasing affirmation of the dignity of life in the womb, that was what made me realise that only the truth proclaimed by the Church was capable of protecting children from abuse.” Her comment reminds us that Church teaching on the dignity of life has a marvellous coherence; whenever we uphold respect for life in a particular situation we are witnessing to all the situations in which that dignity is attacked or undermined.

It is very hard for people, especially outside the Church, to distinguish between perpetrators of the evil done to children and the Church they pretend to serve. Eden has the insight to make that distinction when she says, “The fact that [there are] sinful, fallen human beings who are members of the Church yet disobey God’s law does not take away from the truth of the law as proclaimed by the Church.”

Possibly it is easier for Eden to see this, not having been a child victim of predatory adults in the Church. But it is still a journey, despite its pain, that this latter group has to make if they are not to reject the very source of the grace that will help them to find ultimate healing.
Eden also emphasises that victims of abuse need spiritual help as well as psychological help, commenting “If we’re not offering spiritual help, we’re not being Church because anyone who is a victim of evil needs to know that God did not will that evil for them and that God loves them. And how much truer is this for someone whose been abused by a representative of the Church.” This brings me back to the theme of my last blog: that in all our very human struggles we have to keep God centre-stage.

This interview and the others Dawn Eden has given that are associated with it, are well worth pondering. The sex abuse scandal has rightly humbled the Church and shown up glaringly what can happen when it is treated merely as a human institution whose good name has to be maintained at all cost. Yet Eden’s powerful witness to hope shows that evil never has the last word.