On Forgiveness, Clergy Abuse, and the Need for New Understandings

The Revealer

March 2, 2020

By Kaya Oakes

What should survivors do when the Church asks them for forgiveness?

In March of 2019, the Catholic archbishop of Hartford, Connecticut, decided that a dramatic public statement needed to be made about the 48 priests in his diocese who had been accused of sexual abuse. Archbishop Blair held a special “Mass of Reparations,” during which he told the congregation that he was there to ask forgiveness “especially of all the victims of sexual abuse and their families. I ask it for all the Church leadership has done or failed to do,” and he prostrated himself in a gesture of repentance. It was a vivid moment that received national press attention. But for many victims and their allies, it was just that: a moment.

For decades, Catholic dioceses throughout the country have had to embark on what can only be described as apology tours, during which clergy have again and again asked abuse victims for forgiveness. Nick Ingala, from the lay activist group Voice of the Faithful, told the New York Times that Archbishop Blair’s Reparations Mass was not going to be enough for many victims. “Apologies,” Ingala said, “will only go so far. Where is the responsibility? The accountability? You can’t say ‘I’m sorry’ over and over and over again.” Among the reader comments on the New York Times article, one of the most upvoted was from “Janet,” who stated that “apologies are fine,” but that “nothing, absolutely nothing, ever compensates enough for the heart-heavy, dirty-soul feeling that remains with [victims] until we die.”

While clergy abuse is not my primary focus as a journalist who writes about the Catholic Church, it is one that my colleagues and I have been forced to return to many times as continued revelations of abuse surface. In fact, every person who writes about the Catholic Church is a de facto reporter on abuse. Journalists often become victim advocates simply because we are the first people victims think to contact, especially when distrust of diocesan offices and the Church hierarchy is at an all-time high.

But in spite of the many cases of abuse coming to light around the world, the clerical impulse to plead for forgiveness, and what that does to victims, has rarely been discussed. In 2018, I pitched a story on the role of forgiveness in clergy abuse to a Catholic magazine for which I occasionally write. My hunch was that, like many of the women who were being asked to forgive abusive men as #MeToo revelations unfolded, many victims of clergy abuse might be hesitant to grant forgiveness to those who had violated them because of the corrosive nature of trauma.

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