Bishop Edward Scharfenberger
Bishop Edward Scharfenberger

As the time window for taking legal action against those being held to account for the sexual abuse of minors closes, as provided for by the New York State Child Victims Act (CVA), it is ironic that the recently-resigned governor of the State of New York is also facing issues of accountability for alleged sexual abuse of adults. While it is understandable that the media will focus on persons in positions of power as the prime culprits in society for harm done to those innocent or vulnerable to their designs or predations, one might also question the culture or environment that has facilitated their actions.

If there is anything like a silver lining in the dark cloud that has loomed over the Catholic Church in the United States because of mostly clerics who can no longer hide their sins and crimes behind the collar, living double lives, it may be in the reform of those systemic conditions that gave them cover. To wit, there is no escape from accountability to society, generally, to the Church or to the persons aggrieved or injured by sexual misconduct as defined by law and, ultimately, to God.

Whether and to what extent the CVA will result in justice to victims of sexual abuse as minors is yet to be determined. As much as 85 percent of such abuse happens among those in familiar circles which are not amenable to litigation for many reasons. How much wealth is transferred from institutions rightly to be held accountable into constructive resources for survivors or into the pockets of their legal counsel remains to be seen. What is already demonstrable, though not always acknowledged, is that the Catholic Church has learned, changed, I would be bold to say, matured in its accountability through the reform of its systems and processes that foster it. Data exists to demonstrate an historic institutional overhaul, but the important commitment to offer trauma-sensitive pastoral care is ongoing, transforming us as we learn from serving those victims and families wounded by abuse of many kinds.

It has been and remains a slow, painful and deliberative process of coming clean, a purgation, a determination proactively to do the necessary work which had often been shelved, postponed, even resisted. Central to this process of accompanying survivors and the ongoing institutional reforms needed to do this, is a faith deeply rooted in the healing power of God’s love and mercy. While justice is the first step toward recovery, for individuals and institutions alike, sacrifice and mercy are essential for restoration.

We have heard the term “restorative justice” uttered, perhaps too often and too glibly. And when I speak of “mercy,” I do not mean, first and foremost, reprieves for perpetrators, though God is certainly forgiving of all repentant sinners. Restorative justice and mercy are an active, proactive and undying commitment to walk with survivors on a path of accompaniment together with the only One who can really heal and sustain the whole person of the wounded survivor.

It is not sufficient merely to stop the bleeding of a person who has been wounded. Every act of violence is also a trauma, with roots below the surface of the suture, that strike into the heart and soul, particularly of a child who has been emotionally and physically abused by a once trusted adult, even a God-figure, as in the case of abuse by a member of the clergy. This is at once a parent-wound, a father-wound in most cases, and, sad to acknowledge, a “God-wound.”

All who have been wounded by a public representative of the Church, which is the spouse of Christ in theological terms, have felt at some point that even God has let them suffer or even abandoned them. That is the simple fact, and it cannot be denied. This is the real consequence of abuse. It is, therefore, a constitutive part of the mission of the Church to be devoted to the healing and restoration of survivors, at whatever sacrifice to itself this might require.

Ecclesia semper reformanda — the Church is always to be reformed — reformation in the purity that only confession and the mercy of God can restore in us as persons and as members of the Body of Christ. This is what is required of us all along our journey of faith, and especially as we accompany those survivors wounded so severely in and by the Church itself in its most representative and iconic figures. We will not cease or retrieve in our commitment to this mission, whatever other measures society or its civil institutions may bring forth to assist survivors.

As this painful experience challenges and impels us always to re-ground our fundamental mission of proclaiming and living out the passion and glorious resurrection of our Lord in our personal, familial and institutional lives, I personally welcome the assistance and constructive criticism of so many of good will who recognize the indispensable role a Church renewed has in the healing and accompaniment of survivors. We will not turn our backs on them or our mission which, after all, is all about the redemption and salvation of every human being.

Especially poignant and moving for me, firing my passion and commitment, have been my friends at Spirit Fire (SpiritFireLive.org). These are survivors who, while they continue to struggle with the impact of abuse by clergy, offer themselves as wounded healers. They not only help fellow survivors and their families ground their recoveries in God’s love but also challenge the whole Church. This includes clergy, even bishops like me, joining them in a friendship in Christ, a restored relationship where there has once been rupture and betrayal, and restoring the sanctuary we offer all the world as the wiser, if wounded, family of God.

For those who have been wounded by or within the Church, I can only say, blame us — blame me! — but do not blame God. We want to be God’s servants and, therefore, yours, but know that God has not abandoned us and will remain with us, even when it means we must sacrifice and be purified of all in us that clouds our vision of his loving face, and his heart burning with love for every precious child of his. May we walk together with Him who holds us so close to his heart.

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