We need victim-centered reform

Young adult blogger Michael J. Sanem looks to church's past to answer the question of how we all should respond to today's sex abuse crisis.

By Guest blogger Michael J. Sanem 

During his visit to the United Kingdom last month, Pope Benedict publicly acknowledged the "deep shame and humiliation" felt by the entire church as a result of the sex abuse scandal currently sweeping across Europe. As he did in the United States two years ago, Pope Benedict has given us a powerful model to follow if we honestly seek reconciliation and healing from this widespread tragedy. Rather than a band-aid change in church structures, any authentic reform will first carefully listen to the voice of the victims, and seek the movement of the Spirit therein.

The voice of the victim is the "voice crying out in the wilderness" that we are uncomfortable hearing. But when we listen carefully, we awaken to the tragic consequences of a flawed concept of church, one in which the ordained are superhuman and the laity are somehow secondhand receptors of God's grace.

Though the reforms of the Second Vatican Council sought to amend these errors, at the level of practicality they have only been reinforced by church policy, resulting in an endemic clericalism and an assumption of divine privilege by the clergy and bishops responsible.

St. Augustine, Doctor of Church and wise bishop himself, recognized the grave danger of his office when he wrote, "To you I am the bishop, with you I am a Christian. The first is an office, the second a grace; the first a danger, the second salvation." Augustine knew the grace of salvation lay in solidarity with the laity, not in his holy office.

At last Easter's mass in Rome, the bishops and Roman Curia rallied around Pope Benedict, praising his courage in the face of adversity, but following Augustine's wisdom it would be more appropriate to acknowledge the courage of those victims, all of them baptized, who have suffered in shame and despair for decades.

As Catholics, we tend to emphasize Peter's chosen status as the apostle who could recognize Jesus as the Christ, but we often grapple with our own ability to deny Christ as he is present in the marginalized. When we choose clericalism over justice and triumphalism over humble repentance, Christ present in vulnerable child is once again denied, betrayed, and in the case of those victims who have committed suicide (warning: graphic content), crucified.

At the end of the Gospel of John we meet a Peter who, after denying Jesus, cannot recognize the risen Christ calling to him from the seashore (21: 1-19). Only through brash repentance does Peter finally see that Christ has called him to a very special task, to protect and nourish the most vulnerable members of the flock: "Feed my lambs." In troubled times such as these, when a scandal threatens to devour our church and aggressive secularists denounce our faith as delusional, we, like Peter our rock, are called to humbly acknowledge our own culpability before Christ present in victim of abuse.

When we as a whole church commit ourselves to listening to the victim, we will finally be able to reassert our love for Christ and our continued commitment to care for the most vulnerable among us. But before we do this, we must recognize that Christ and the grace of his healing is more present to us in the crucified victims of sexual abuse than in our wounded pride and stubborn triumphalism.

Guest blogger Michael J. Sanem is a young adult pursuing his master's degree at Catholic Theological Union. He mentors youth through CTU's Peacebuilders Initiative, and he also blogs at Where there is despair.

Guest blog posts express the views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.