Priestly abuse of minors, sexual or otherwise, inflicts a grievous wound on the Church, the entire body of the baptized. It grievously wounds the victims. The damage to the body may heal; souls are another thing, and often the damage there is permanent. Victims of abuse often find their faith in God shattered, unable to believe in the love and mercy of God after having experienced exploitation and cruelty from His ministers. There have rightly been many apologies, but not all wounds can heal, not all faith can be restored.
The lay faithful as a whole are also wounded, even if they do not know any victims personally. Grave priestly sins are like a family scandal; everyone suffers from the shame. Relations between clergy and laity, which ought to be characterized by trust and co-operation, become marked by suspicion and hostility instead. For priests themselves, the wickedness of a brother against the innocent and vulnerable is cause for personal pain and embarrassment.
All of this has been convulsing Irish society for the past 10 years as they have come to terms with their “residential schools” problem. For generations Irish orphans and those judged to be delinquent were sent to boarding schools run by the state and administered by Catholic religious orders. A commission of inquiry reported last week on the shadows of that period, which included tales of widespread savagery, depravation and sexual abuse, even rape. The system under examination is now several decades in the past, but the report ripped open old wounds in Irish society, both in the state and in the Church.
At the heart of this report was massive misconduct among the Irish Christian Brothers, known around the world for their apparently excellent schools. My own father, in remote India, attended an Irish Christian Brothers boarding school. He told us stories of corporal punishment and austere living, but never anything like the litany of wickedness revealed last week. They gave him an excellent education, but one wonders if anything more sinister was going on. No matter what good the Christian Brothers did, their once proud name now conjures up the worst possible suspicions.
As a priest, I find the failings of the brethren hit close to home. Just as there is an immediate sense of fraternal kinship with any priest, even met in passing, there too is a collective participation in the shame of those who have become predators upon the flock, rather than good shepherds.
“We are personally and profoundly afflicted by the sins of some of our brothers who have betrayed the grace of Ordination in succumbing even to the most grievous forms of the ‘mysterium iniquitatis’ at work in the world,” wrote the late Pope John Paul II in 2002, using a Latin phrase to solemnly express the reality of evil.
May is a common month for priestly ordinations in Canada, and I am at-tending two of them this week. They are joyful occasions, and many people experience them as moments palpably touched by God’s grace. To betray that grace of ordination is unthinkable, which is why reports such as the Irish one, though painful, are necessary. They force us to think about what we would prefer not to think about.
One Tuesday night in Toronto, Archbishop Thomas Collins reminded all priests present that one way to preserve the purity of the grace of ordination is to go to confession regularly. Just a bit of pious blather? No, for confession of our minor compromises and infidelities to God’s grace may indeed preserve us from the greater sins; even as a husband who apologizes to his wife in small matters is unlikely to betray her in larger ones. Perhaps the horror of what has been done in grave matters — in Ireland to be sure, but also in Canada — will encourage priests to be more faithful in all matters.
“Lord, grant also to us such fellow workers, for we are weak and our need is greater,” prayed the archbishop at the ordination. “Almighty Father, grant to this servant of yours the dignity of the priesthood. Renew within him the spirit of holiness.”
Dignity. Holiness. It is often said that the scandals have brought the Church to her knees. That’s not a bad place for the Church to be, on her knees before the Lord, beseeching Him for just that — holy priests worthy of their dignity. Indeed, for we are weak and our need is great.