Guest Editorial: Pastoral resolution

The Catholic Register - Archdiocese of Toronto, Ontario, Canada

December 22, 2022

By Lea Karen Kivi

This week The Catholic Register publishes a rare guest editorial written by Lea Karen Kivi, author of Abuse in the Church: Healing the Body of Christ, who articulates concerns that we agree must be engaged regarding the effect of the adversarial legal system on clerical abuse cases. 

Are lawyers and insurance companies an impediment to the healing of the Church when it comes to clergy sexual abuse cases? 

This week, we learned that Cardinal Marc Ouellet has brought a civil lawsuit alleging defamation on the part of a woman, a party to a class-action lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Quebec, who alleges that he sexually assaulted her. 

Both parties certainly have the legal right to proceed in this manner, but is an adversarial courtroom setting, in which lawyers on both sides seek to discredit the opposing party, the best place for such matters to be dealt with? 

As survivors of clergy sexual abuse have said, some (arch)bishops refuse to meet with those claiming to have experienced sexual abuse. Unfortunately, by refusing to play the role of pastor to a wounded soul and potentially facilitating healing and reconciliation through direct dialogue, some survivors are more wounded by this rejection and may be more likely to launch a lawsuit. Why might these (arch)bishops avoid speaking pastorally to survivors? 

Recently, a presentation hosted by GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) featured Victor Vieth, an American lawyer and former child abuse prosecutor, stating that churches tend to elevate the teachings of lawyers and insurance companies above the teachings of Jesus Christ when it comes to dealing with abuse complaints. 

In the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches us to settle with our opponents before going to court. The Church’s Code of Canon Law, perhaps inspired by this teaching of Jesus, outlines methods of avoiding trials in ecclesiastical matters through agreement or reconciliation between the parties, potentially facilitated through use of arbitrators. 

At the Trauma & Transformation Conference in Montreal in October 2011, Fr. Leonard Altilia, SJ, spoke of how Canadian Jesuits chose to set aside the advice of their lawyers and instead adopted a pastoral approach to resolving abuse cases. This approach involved, whenever possible, meeting with survivors one-on-one, listening to their stories, asking the survivors what they think would be a fair settlement/punishment, and then coming up with a mutually acceptable agreement. 

Pursuing civil lawsuits is exceptionally costly and can be (re-)traumatizing to the parties involved directly, and indirectly traumatizing to the entire Church community. Let’s pray that the pastoral approach is adopted more widely, making use of external mediators, arbitrators, and lawyers only where helpful or necessary.