Making it through the dark night of the priest pedophilia crisis and arriving at truth and reconciliation requires an unflinching examination of our consciences.
When King Herod the Great learned from the Magi that they were seeking a newborn child who would become king over all, he ordered a slaughter of the innocents. Herod, then 75 years old, was not new to murderous revenges-and he would eventually kill his own grown son. Rather than risk losing his estate, he instead ragefully ordered that all of Bethlehem's precious boy babies under 2 years of age be murdered in their cradles.
Pick up your Bible, and surely the very page weeps blood as you read, "A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more" (Matt. 2:18).
The anguished Rachel is awakened again today. Who here cannot hear the terrible weeping for the children of our own time? Lord, hear our prayer. Awaken us. May the slaughter of innocents never be allowed again.
But today we have to do more than just pray. Let us learn the harsh facts and not turn away. Let us act, link arms across the world to better protect all children. I think I speak for many Catholics when I say we could not be one ounce more heartsick and strewn with ashes than we are right now over hearing of some priests using children for sexual gratification. Let this be our prayer, forever and always: Awaken. Be awake. Remain awake.
As a psychoanalyst practicing clinically for 32 years, I am not a priest, not a theologian. But perhaps, ultimately, I am someone far more dangerous-a Latina grandmother with a fierce glint in her eye who knows several somethings about moral formation. As I see it, our first task here is to acknowledge that sexual intrusion against children exists and apparently far more often than we would ever think to imagine. Next we must apply proper spiritual and temporal remedies for every soul's recovery from this modern slaughter of the innocents.
The issues require excruciating differentiation so as not to harm those who have already made their admissions and paid their debts; not to falsely accuse; not to sacrifice for the sake of the status quo or the institution any child or adult who is blameless; not to allow righteous anger at perpetrators to demean all the other priests who have lived honorably; not to allow solely legal postures to dominate this process. I hope we can look closely and be willing to hold firmly accountable those who have intruded, while also exonerating justly when appropriate.
From decades in post-trauma work-both with war veterans and with victims of massacres and natural disasters-I know that the steps to help mend this tremendous laceration to the souls of many will take much time. The burden is very heavy, and the night is bitter cold, but I believe we can make it across this la noche oscura del alma, as San Juan de la Cruz called it, this "dark night of the soul." The way through this dark night can come through self– inquiry, both as individuals and as a group. We can stop the secrecy by telling the whole story by the light of day.
The sacrament of Reconciliation can provide the model. In this sacramental assessment of our own motives, foibles, and oversights, we are given a way of asking that the disattached heart, mind, body, soul, and spirit be mended back together and made whole again.
Whether in medicine, psychology, or theology, we know that a sickness lying underneath the skin and left without effective treatment will infect and devastate the entire body. It will eventually suppurate and rise to the surface, destroying all living tissue. This is what has apparently occurred in the matter of certain priests sexually abusing children. Medicine must be administered, and quickly. Can prayers be antibiotics? Yes. Can goodwill help? Yes. But far more is needed-a psychic surgery, excision, grafts. Where to make the cuts, what to excise?
I strongly believe we should start with scanning ourselves.
Unconsciously or not and in varying degrees of responsibility and culpability, we have been rampantly negligent in questioning our own naivete about who and how others administer accountability and justice; in the need for vigilance regarding children; in our learning the true facts about mental disorders in our times; about evil being a palpable force in the modern world that can overwhelm reason and resolve; and about the proximity of children to disordered adults being the perfect feast set out for those who raven and sexually overwhelm the young.
We are not alone in responsibility here. Naivete, sluggish comprehension, and studied ignorance about how predators of many kinds easily savage those who are vulnerable infects our entire culture. Child sex slavery. Children caged in cellars. Children lured through the Internet. Food withheld as punishment. Beatings that blind and deafen children for life. Children murdered daily in heart, spirit, and body. These atrocities do not only occur in isolated wadis halfway across the world. They can and do occur right down the street, in our own villages.
Pedophilia is an illness, not a job description. This disorder is found in all ethnic groups and social classes. Others who are not priests intrude on the young as well. One of the greatest helps children can be given is to be kept away from such persons. The greatest help a person suffering from this disease can be given is to isolate them from children. No honor accrues to the fox-or anyone else-by setting out little chicks in order to test whether the fox has been "adequately rehabilitated" or not.
South African Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu sat day after day through the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. These broke the silence about the profound violations of the human spirit and the slaughters that had taken place during apartheid. The commission used an imperfect but greatly healing process to try to find a way-hard as it was-so that people could manage to live together again after thousands of murders and heinous mayhems.
The central remedy offered by the commission was to listen to all the people's stories with the intent to help restore the greater parts of what could be restored, to heal and to forgive and/or forbear in equal parts as well. After the many stories of grave transgressions were truthfully told, the choice for peace in the future was made individual by individual, not by any authoritarian declaration to "move on."
Publicly speaking truths with accountability is one of the most direct paths toward peace. To be truly heard is, for many, the exact heart of healing.
Tutu's boldness in facing the truth without turning away can embolden us as well. By wearing the aegis of the God of love, the Christ Jesus, we too can proceed toward truth in the current crisis, even though with great trembling in the soul. It is premature to "move on," but it is time to move forward.
So, where to start with our own accountability in this matter of sexual predation on the young by those in positions of trust? We, each according to our station in the church, can commence most clearly by giving a full and extensive apology to the victims. But an apology of a thousand "I am sorrys" is not enough to help heal those who have been harmed. Rote words alone, without the true heart being fully engaged and knowledgeable, are not part of the sacramental process of Reconciliation.
We must ask God to give us the strength and vision we will need to patiently cross this rocky and cold place and to shelter the precious spirit of all children. Some, I know, would just like to say a fast "Sorry," ask forgiveness, and get it over with already.
But, if we did that, we would be like the arrogant religious whom Jeremiah condemned in his day: "From prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely. They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying `Peace, peace,' when there is no peace" (Jer. 6:13-14).
The first part of the sacrament of Reconciliation requires self-examination. This takes time. We must consider these matters deeply and quietly. When I was a child, my fierce old Catholic grandmothers taught me that a small transgression may only require a few seconds of "Sorry, and I will do better." But a large transgression required serious self-study, to truly look within one's self.
A complete and healing apology requires that we say how we came to do what we did, with exact specifics. For being naive, unseeing, and-please forgive my plain– spokenness-even stone-stupid about matters of sexual intrusion, we might begin by saying one or more of the following to our God, to those injured, and to whoever else might listen to our broken hearts:
I did not think to question. I was completely blind. I did not even know such things took place. I did not know the questions to ask or the words to say. I ignored the warning signs for I did not know what the warning signs were. My sense of propriety was offended. I did not want to think about these things. It made me sick to think about them.
I liked this priest, and I trusted him. I saw he was so nice to the children; I never suspected, never asked myself why a grown man had no other life apart from wanting to be near children. I thought he just liked to roughhouse with children. I was happy that he cared about his young parishioners in such a one-on-one way. I thought religiosity truly prevented dishonorable acts.
I thought there might be something slightly wrong, but then I thought I was imagining it and did not pursue it. l felt unease, but I could not decipher what my gut was telling me. I kept naively hoping for the best. He was always nice to me; so how could he hurt anyone else?
I was uncomfortable with delving into the general or the specifics about the panorama of sexuality. I had been taught that the body is dangerous to think about, and that it is best to remain ignorant and silent about the varieties of sexuality.
I kept silent because my own life under scrutiny would not wash completely clear. I kept silent because others kept silent. l just wanted it to go away. No one is perfect; who was I to judge?
I knew about it but wanted to give him a chance to change. I believed that all people can change, and if a predation might have occurred once, that such would never occur again. I did not look for the covert, only at the overt. believed the wrong ideas, opinions, and people. I could not differentiate who was telling the truth and who was not, so 1 failed to delve deeply enough. I thought I was being merciful to those who had sinned.
My mind was-focused on many other duties. He was doing fairly well in every other area; I hoped it was just a matter of maturation. What if I accused him and I was wrong?
1 followed what I had been taught by previous generations who did not speak of these matters either. allowed ambition and trying to maintain the status quo to drive me to keep trying to think up better ways to solve this without taking the difficult steps truly needed. I did not want to be embarrassed, exposed to public or private censure or ridicule. I wanted to protect position, status, finance. I was afraid of setting off a witch hunt. I was afraid enemies of the church would misuse this terrible situation and hurt the church. forgot "the church" is the people.
I thought it was truly taken care of; I relied on others to "take care of it" and to assure me. I delegated, instead of educating myself and maintaining oversight at every turn. I listened to those over, above, or near me, instead of to my own soul.
A whole apology then goes on to say, with exact raw specifics, what effect one's neglect or actions have had on those who were harmed, addressing the victims directly, not by using the impersonal "The church feels thus and so," nor "The faithful think thusly," but using instead the personal pronouns of accountability and love-the "I" and the "you."
The abuse caused you to be confused about your God-given sexuality at an age when it was supposed to be a moot point. It put pictures in your mind that are hard to erase. It caused you, who were filled with the joy of childhood, to feel dread instead.
You were sacrificed so that another might feel illicit pleasure at your expense. It taught you to fear those who said they were only trying to be nice to you. You were lied to and the whole time told you were being blessed. It stole your sense of unfolding selfhood that belonged only to you. It placed another person's mark on the clear page of your body that God gave for only you to write upon.
It asked you to keep secrets, to your own detriment. It taught you to keep the peace at any price. It caused you to not trust your own self.
It caused you to be divided in your mind about what real love is and what is not. It made you confuse being blessed with being exploited. It cast you into an ocean of sexuality without the years or emotional maturity, so you could neither float nor swim. You carried the burden of shame that you thought was yours when that burden in fact belonged to another.
You were forced against your will to leave your incandescent birthright-the teachings, comfort, and support for the soul to be found in the arms not of a pedophiliac person, but in the arms of the loving, living God.
The image of the priest is supposed to be the image of Christ; your truest image of God was defiled and ripped from you. You feel that your childhood was lost in so many ways. You fear what people will think of you now. You fear some will think you had a part in this. You are afraid to claim your God– given sexuality for fear it is somehow sullied. You would rather wither away spiritually than take the chance to love and to trust others fully again.
The list of harms may go on for a long time. Each injured soul will add to this unfolding story. But still the apology is not complete. We have to stay with the suffering; do not fall asleep.
Next comes, "For this I am heartfully sorry." Here one now speaks about the ways in which this entire matter has affected oneself. Specifically:
My soul is in sorrow for what I have done, or neglected to do. I see now that to have integrity, I have to question my integrity. Constantly.
I am mistrustful of my knowledge at this time. I am in need of my own healing. I am in grief over that which I should have done and yet did not do.
Then, we gradually move to "What will I do next in order to make certain this never happens again?" More specifics are required.
I will never put status, finance, persona, brotherhood, group-think, or any other thing ahead of the protection of a child. I will make certain that church law for protection of children is higher than criminal law instead of lower. I will make sure that all those under my care and within my reach who are in positions of any authority whatsoever-from the custodians of the school to the catechists, deacons, priests, nuns, lay teachers, monsignors, and bishops-know of the specifics of this mental illness of preying upon children.
I will make certain that this matter is discussed, and more than once, in all pulpits, that it is not held away from the People of God as though difficult subjects are incompatible with religiosity. I will hold forth that the shocks and difficulties of the modern world are some of the most central reasons for our religiosity to exist and be acted upon in the world.
I will make sure that every seminary and religious formation program teaches about these matters. I will learn about the specific psychological tests and spiritual vettings that can be used to screen candidates, laity and religious, for teaching, parish, and other positions under my charge. I realize now that pedophilia causes the one who is ill to go wherever there is food laid out, just like any compelled creature. I now realize wherever there are children, ones who prey upon them will lurk, too.
1 plan to teach children, without frightening them, what to watch out for. The mother bear teaches her cubs right away about predators; she does not wait until they are grown-for without knowledge of predators they may never reach adulthood.
I understand that the holy body that we all are given by God carries a multitude of blessings, including its sexuality, and that this ought and will be nourished and emphasized and protected as a full pillar of the living soul of God. I will learn about my own sacredness of body also
Under my watch now and in the future, the banner is hung out. In big, bold letters it says, "Harming children is not tolerated here." It says, "Do not even dare to come near if you are not well; we are watching and we are alert."
I will myself participate in commissions on the protection of children; I myself will be a part of the larger process of protecting not just Catholic children, but all children.
I will continue to reiterate to you that these matters were not your sins. They are the sins of others. You were a child. What has gone wrong is not your fault. We are the ones accountable, and we have taken up the burden and will not turn away from it.
What comes next is for many of us the hardest part: to hear from the person harmed, and at length, and for days on end if necessary, their personal recitations and reliving of all that occurred, all that caused them to suffer, all the lights of the spirit that were extinguished, all the windows broken out in the sacristy of their hearts, all the mistrust of God, all the mistrust of God's representatives on Earth.
This is the part that caused Archbishop Tutu at the hearings one day to literally faint from horror and exhaustion. But, even so, he continued. We can go on, too. Stay awake.
Next the one harmed is asked:
Please tell me what I can do to help you now. I will try, and I will do what is within my power to do. I cannot take away these terrible wrongs, nor can I alter my own miserable part in it, but I can soften it with my heartfelt actions now.
I can help to create new life for all concerned by helping to place the best medicines in the worst of the wounds. Though I cannot change history, I can make the now and the future different from the past.
The ones harmed can then say what repair is possible for them at this point– not all repair, for there is no all, but the most of what will be of help now. They will suggest what efforts we and they, together, can put toward rebuilding a clear and trusting relationship once more-with the living God, with other human beings, and with oneself.
Do not tire now, for if there are two useful markers of a true contrition that enlarge the aperture for healing grace to flow through, they are: absence of irritation and absence of impatience. So hold to, now. We have gone through the dissolutio. With our hearts thusly softened, as in the alchemical duress wherein the lead is dissolved in an acid bath, wherein the base metal of self is "reddened" with sacrifice, now the aurum verum, the true gold, becomes a possibility.
Next, one asks forgiveness in one's own words: I know you will never forget. And at the same time, I ask your forgiveness. And if not forgiveness, if you cannot cancel my spiritual debt to you, then I ask your forbearance for my soul.
Then, the next most important step– asking God for absolution of one's own sins, whatever they have been. Having been in agonies more than once in my life, I have found that God holds a special place of healing for those of us who are most disheveled and heartbroken. In those with conscience, to not have done the right thing causes, at first, a self-imposed separation, a cringing away from being with God. Sin in many ways is a form of self-shaming that makes one feel unworthy to be in God's beautiful presence. This, too, has to be let go and be replaced with better intention and clearer knowledge.
So, in the end, what is this long, excruciating, exhausting process for? It is for one thing only: to share in the suffering for love's sake. Do we not follow the God of love? Did someone think we were just kidding when in the sacrament of Confirmation we received the gifts of the Holy Spirit, one of the most profound being the gift of hands-on, hearts-on healing?
So here we are, still in the desert for now, still in the cold, dark night, but making headway. And why are we here? Because we are determined not to sacrifice children to any unquestioning and unquestioned authority, not our own, nor anyone else's.
From having been caught in the midst of a shooting war in Guatemala in the late 1960s, I know that when traveling in hostile territory in the middle of the night, one does not just suddenly take a stroll on a whim. You must have serious reason. You start out at night so that something that truly matters will have the best chance to survive.
The journey through a dangerous night forces you to be spiritually alert and, more so, very spiritually sound. Crossing through a dark wilderness makes you peer into the souls of creatures and other human beings in ways you never looked and never saw before, finding both good and not-so-good revealed.
On such a journey, you learn to put the health of the incandescent spirit before anything else. You put God and your mission of mercy before any other authority. Forever. And always. You take risks in order to keep love safe.
Acting as though you were the last righteous person on Earth, you do this so that peace and healing and justice will be certain to continue. You do it to carry the true story of love out of the wilderness into a place of peace. To be witness. To be healer. To not just carry, but to become, the best and most healing truth yourself.
May we all be awakened,
and granted full healing.
May we all be granted peace.
So may it be for me.
So may it be for you.
So may it be for all of us.
This article appeared in the June 2002 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 67, No. 6, pages 24-28) It was written by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés, a diplomate psychoanalyst, post-trauma recovery specialist, and awardee of Catholic Press Award for non-fiction. Author of Women Who Run With the Wolves, published in 37 languages.