COMMENTARY: Forgiveness and the First Amendment

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c. 2003 Religion News Service

(The Rev. Marie M. Fortune is editor of the Journal of Religion and Abuse and founder of the Seattle-based Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence. She is the author of “Is Nothing Sacred? The Story of a Pastor, the Women He Sexually Abused, and the Congregation He Nearly Destroyed,” and an ordained pastor in the United Church of Christ.)

(UNDATED) The latest legal strategy to be employed by the Archdiocese of Boston in defending itself against civil litigation by survivors of sexual abuse by priests is a legal and theological mistake.

In a two-pronged approach, archdiocese lawyers are arguing the First Amendment’s separation of church and state prevents the courts from involvement in church matters (like its handling of pedophile priests) and that such involvement interferes with church teaching of forgiveness and redemption for sinners.

Yet another attempt to avoid liability and responsibility for egregious mishandling of sexual abuse by priests for decades continues to erode what little moral credibility may be left. It betrays a determined ignorance about the nature of sexual abuse and very poor interpretation of Scripture and theology. At this point in time, both are an embarrassment.

Forgiveness is perhaps the most misunderstood and misused teaching in Christian doctrine. Jesus’ teaching is very clear in the Gospels: “If your brother sins against you, rebuke him. And if he repents, forgive him.” (Luke 17:3) It doesn’t say “If your brother offends against you, ignore him, move him to a new parish, allow him to offend again.” Rebuke him: Call him to account, confront him, stop him. And IF he repents _ changes, turns around, gets “a new heart and a new mind” _ forgive him.

That still doesn’t mean he is returned to a position of responsibility for vulnerable people. We know that pedophiles cannot be “cured.” The best thing we can do to support their repentance is to prevent them from being in situations where they might re-offend.

My friend once said that “God is compassionate, merciful and gracious, but God is not stupid.” And I would add, God is not pleased when God’s own followers have so little regard for the welfare of the least among us and persist in protecting the powerful and then making excuses for doing so.

The Roman Catholic Church has the blueprint it needs to respond to the abuse of children by priests, but it seems reluctant to use it. Scripture teaches that God calls the sinner to account in order to call him back, to help him return to a straight path, to help him not continue to harm others. This is what redemption is about.

I sat with a group of incest offenders, fathers who had sexually abused their children. Twenty-five of the twenty-seven were active Christians. When they were arrested, each one went first to his pastor and each one reported that he was prayed over and sent home “forgiven.” They said it was the worst thing that anyone could have done to them. It allowed them to continue to avoid responsibility for the harm they had done to their children. Their advice to the church: “Don’t forgive us so quickly.” In this case, a court-mandated treatment program was doing the church’s work of calling these men to repentance and supporting them in change and accountability.

Why can’t the archdiocese simply acknowledge (confess) that it has made huge mistakes in the past, commit to doing things differently (repentance), and educate itself to change its response in the future (penance), and then follow through (sin no more)? Why is this so hard? Why does it continue to spend time and money defending, rationalizing and justifying its un-Christian behavior?

DEA END FORTUNE

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