Forgiveness Offers Ultimate Peace

By Andrew Greeley
Chicago Sun-Times [Chicago IL]
December 12, 2003

I once gave a keynote address at the founding of a group of victims of sexual abuse by priests. It was back in the early days when many bishops and most priests were in denial about the problem. I said everything that I thought the audience wanted to hear because I was on their side and agreed with their stand. After the talk was over and I was trying to escape from the room and get back to work, I was surrounded by a mob of howling furies. When I finally had fought (literally) through them, I said to my host: "If you attack your friends this way, then all you will have is enemies."

I thought they assumed that since I was a priest I was a fair target for their rage. Now I realize that they were not angry at me. They were simply angry. They were telling me their stories and could not tell them without hysterical anger. They had plenty of reason to be angry. Not only had they been abused by a priest, but many of them had been abused yet again by Roman Catholic Church authorities who sided with the priest against them.

Yet can people live forever as prisoners of such anger? Does not the rage continue the power the abuser has over the victim? Without giving up one's rights in justice, cannot one escape from the control of anger by beginning to forgive?

Dr. Robert D. Enright, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, asks these questions in a sensitive and powerful book, Forgiveness Is a Choice. "No act, no matter how terrible, is unforgivable, but some people choose not to forgive. Respect for the rights of others requires that we respect this choice. . . . Anyone who has been hurt can forgive."

He goes on to write that one must be clear about what forgiveness means. It does not mean that one must forget what was done. Nor does it mean one gives up rights to justice, or reconciliation with the one who has offended. Finally, it does not mean trust of the person or institution that harmed you. Trust everyone, as a wise man once wrote, but cut the cards just the same. Forgiveness, therefore, requires a delicate emotional balance: You must balance realism with a willingness to display compassion and mercy.

However, only forgiveness can free a person from hatred and rage. It is a tragic mistake to think that revenge does. The relatives of a murder victim think they will find closure when the killer is executed, but they quickly discover that it does not. One can free oneself from fury only by forgiveness. As Enright and his colleagues in forgiveness therapy say, forgiveness is hard work.

"Father, forgive them for they know not what they do" and "forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us" are solid mental health advice, based on deep insight into human nature.

A very wise psychiatrist recently pointed out to me that forgiveness is much harder when the victimizer is dead, and that it becomes easier when the victimizer is ready to accept responsibility and guilt. The latter condition rarely exists among priest victimizers whose peculiar psychic structure fortifies them with deep denial. Nor does it affect many of the bishops who have covered up abuse in the past. They, after all, were doing it only for the good of the church.

Cardinal Bernard Law took the fall for sexual abuse among the clergy. However, many more bishops ought to resign, and many men ought not be made bishops. This is not likely to happen. Until it does, it will be more difficult for the victims to escape the armor of being a victim and become in the full sense of the word a survivor.

I don't blame the victims for being suspicious about the protocols that emerged from the Dallas meetings a year and a half ago. Many bishops don't understand that the whole internal shape of the church has to be changed to win back credibility, that they must begin to listen seriously to the lay folk. The sexual abuse problem was more than a stumble, a mistake. In fact, it revealed just now deep the gulf is between church leaders and their people, a fracture in the way the church organizes itself.

Yet even bishops deserve mercy and compassion.


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