Because I have just published my memoir "Driving Straight on Crooked Lines: How an Irishman found his heart and nearly lost his mind" about my experiences with Fr. Maciel, I've been more curious than usual about the current state of affairs, including the scandal of clergy sex abuse in the Church.
I read Fr. Rolheiser's article in its entirety and found helpful, enlightening and consoling in the context of some of the revelations that have come to light about Fr. Marcial Maciel the Founder of the Legionaries of Christ and the lay movement Regnum Christi. The following is just an abbreviated excerpt. Please take the time to read the full article – I hope that you find it useful and, ultimately encouraging.
This is a dark night of the soul which is meant, like every dark night of the soul, to stretch the heart. To be stretched is always painful and our normal impulse is always to do something to end the pain, to make it go away. But the pain won't go away until we learn the lesson that it's meant to teach us. Pain of the heart never leaves us until "we get it", get what it is meant to teach us, and get stretched in the way it's meant to stretch us. This pain will stay with the church until we learn what we are meant to learn from it.If you have found the above excerpt helpful, I urge you to take the time to read the full article.
It's too easy and too simplistic to blame the media for this crisis. They are not the problem; in fact, they are rendering us, the world and the church, a great service, irrespective of how painful this is. The press is not the villain - Don't kill the weatherman for reporting bad weather! Granted that sometimes their coverage hasn't been fair, but that's ultimately not the issue. Beneath it all, the substance is true.
For the most part, until this crisis came along, Roman Catholicism in North America enjoyed a wonderful history of trust with its people. And then this scandal comes along, creating the biggest crisis of soul and crisis of credibility that the North American church has faced in its young history. This is, in effect, a "dark night of the soul" for us and, like most dark nights of the soul, wounds expectedly and at a particularly vulnerable part of ourselves.
Because of the way the issue has constellated, it's too easy for us to identify the word pedophilia simplistically with priests and with the bishops' less-than-stellar history of handling its clergy who are accused of it. That's not to excuse priests, but contextualizing this in terms of its prevalence in the culture keeps us aware that priests are less than .01 per-cent of this massive problem. In fact, statistically, this disease is marginally lower among the clergy and vowed religious than it is among the population at large.
Pedophilia is not a celibate disease, not a gay disease, not a married disease, not a man's disease, nor a woman's disease. It's a disease, pure and simple, and, like alcoholism, it cuts across all boundaries, affecting alike clergy and lay, men and women, gay and straight, married and celibate. Like alcohol, it plays no favorites. It's a sickness and not a question of somebody who is celibate not having proper willpower or of somebody who doesn't have sex acting out because of that deprivation.
A comparison can be made to alcoholism: If we could roll the clock back 60 or 70 years, we would see that society then had no understanding of alcoholism as a disease. It naively thought that the problem was simply a failure of willpower: "Why don't they just stop drinking?" Now we recognize that it's a sickness and must be understood and treated as such.
This naive understanding of the nature of the disease is one of the reasons bishops made some mistakes early on. Unaware of the real and deep nature of this as an illness, they believed the perpetrator when he said, "I'll never do it again." The perpetrator was sincere in saying that and they were sincere in believing it, but, as we know now, that's not a responsible statement and there's a dangerous naïveté in believing it because in most cases there's little chance that the pedophile is not going to do it again.
What causes pedophilia? While there is now division over a former axiom that held that "every abuser was first abused", everyone agrees that pedophilia is caused by some massive trauma in childhood. In many, perhaps most, cases the perpetrators were themselves sexually abused as children. Whatever the trauma he or she experienced, the consensus is that it was massively deep and this is part of the very nature of the disease. Pedophilia is an awful disease - but something awful has caused it. Every year we learn more about the devastating nature of sexual abuse. It's the worst kind of "soul-violence" on the planet. Nothing approximates it. And because devastating trauma, especially the trauma of being sexually abused, can be buried so deeply in one's memory, when perpetrators act out they often bury the memories of their actions equally as deeply, giving them incredible denial mechanisms. I've seen a pedophile pass two lie-detector tests in a row. This makes it hard, and in many cases impossible, to treat the disease.
A pedophile is someone who is attracted to a child who has not yet reached puberty. A normal adult is not sexually attracted to a pre-pubescent child. So why is a pedophile attracted to a child? The literature within this area tells us that a reason for that attraction, perhaps the main reason, is not to do with sex itself but with the trauma the perpetrator experienced as a child, namely, his or her pathological attraction is to the child that was lost in the pedophile’s own early childhood trauma. His or her own trauma killed the child in them. Simplistically put, the pathological sexual attraction to children exists in the pedophile because the pedophile has had his or her own childhood stolen from them.
We may never in any way understate the utter devastation of soul that is caused in the victim of pedophilia. There is no greater form of soul-violence on this planet. Nothing so scars, violates, and unravels the soul - literally pulls it apart - as does sexual abuse.
What do victims want from us?
When victims are asked what we as a church, especially as the official church, can give them, they invariably name several things:
1. - An honest acknowledgment that somebody else is sick (which is important for their own healing). Since generally the perpetrator is not going to do that, the bishop, the provincial, the pope, whoever, must do it. Someone who represents the church must say to the victim: "We hurt you, we were wrong, and we are sorry!" There has to be an honest acknowledgment and apology which may not be a rationalization or half-apology. Today this is made difficult because of legal ramifications. There's tremendous tension today in the church, in chancery offices and elsewhere, between compassion and the Bible, between what we're called to do by Jesus and what our lawyers tell us to do.
2. - Victims also ask another thing of us: "Don't be afraid of our anger!" On some previous occasions when I've addressed public groups on this topic, I first phoned a number of victims and asked them what they wanted me to say. Always one of their responses was: "Tell them not to be afraid of our anger!" By and large, I don't think we have heard that.
This is a dark night of the soul which is meant, like every dark night of the soul, to stretch the heart. To be stretched is always painful and our normal impulse is always to do something to end the pain, to make it go away. But the pain won't go away until we learn the lesson that it's meant to teach us. Pain of the heart never leaves us until "we get it", get what it is meant to teach us, and get stretched in the way it's meant to stretch us. This pain will stay with the church until we learn what we are meant to learn from it.