Faith in action for the abused

La Croix International [France]

March 5, 2024

By Christopher Longhurst

Public prayers for abuse victims, though well-intentioned, may appear hypocritical without concrete actions for justice. Victims need acknowledgment, support, and redress, not just prayers. Faith in action speaks louder than words alone.

But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. (James 2:18)

Many churches across the world designated a national day of prayer and penance for victims of abuse and violence. In New Zealand’s Catholic Church, that day was the first Friday of Lent.

The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors stated that “prayer is a central, important part of the healing process for victims/survivors and for the whole community of believers. Moreover, public prayer is an important way of raising consciousness in the Church.”

Indisputably, prayer is important for believers, a crucial part of any healing process for those of faith affected by abuse. However, when it comes to abuse in churches, especially abuse and violence perpetrated by church leaders themselves, and an appropriate response from the local faith-based community, actions are needed to bring faith alive and restore the harm done. 

Biblical teaching

Given biblical teaching, major risks exist of misinterpreting the intention of using prayer to raise awareness around abuse and violence. While this awareness raising is vital, direct ways exist for church leaders to do so rather than making a public spectacle of prayer; for example, church announcements, parish bulletins, and speaking up against abuse, and above all, standing in solidarity with victims.

Because when it comes to prayer, Jesus said, “when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward” (Matthew 6:5).

Public prayer for victims of abuse may seem hypocritical especially when justice is denied. It could even seem offensive in concrete cases where victims come forward to disclose to church authorities what they experienced in the care of the Church, but the particular wrongdoing is never acknowledged. “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?”  (James 2:15-16)

Mission of the Church

In New Zealand, the Catholic bishops claimed that “many victims/survivors have often expressed a desire for prayer as an important element in their healing process.” However, no data was provided to support this claim. Further, not once at any hearings of the New Zealand Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care did a single victim or survivor express “a desire for prayer as an important element in their healing process.” 

Neither does prayer play any role in the official response to complaints of sexual abuse and sexual misconduct perpetrated by clergy and religious in the New Zealand Catholic Church,Te Houhanga Rongo/A Path To Healing. Prayer is never mentioned. Therefore, the basis on which the bishops made their claim is not clear. 

A victim and survivor-centred response might be more helpful for the Church as an institution rather than a churchgoer-focused response. Ivan Illich, Austrian philosopher and Roman Catholic priest once said, when institutions focus on themselves rather than their mission, they end up perverting that mission. 

Part of the mission of the Church is to heal the wounded. Victims and survivors have repeatedly asked for justice, fair redress, respect, to be heard and compensated for at least the financial losses they incurred in dealing with the effects of abuse. 

Therefore, churchgoers putting their faith into practice through direct involvement in speaking up for victims, helping stop the abuse by holding perpetrators and those who cover for them to account, might be more meaningful than public prayers. This is because in responding to victims’ needs, the Bible reminds us to do good works (James 2:14-26). Catholics especially are called to “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” (James 1:22)

Prayer without justice…

Not that prayer is not a good work. But it is a spiritual work. Corporeal works of justice such as acknowledging wrongdoing when victims and survivors come forward to disclose what happened to them, and supporting them through adequate redress might be more meaningful than calling for public prayers. When church authorities call for public prayers but ignore victims who cry out to them for justice, then we have to ask what the church authorities’ real intention is. The appearance of holiness? Public image?

But prayer should not be used for these ends.

Prayer in response to victims of abuse and violence can only be ancillary as a faith-based response. When performed in public, it can raise consciousness about abuse and violence. However, doing so while ignoring the provisions for authentic redress and justice risks offending those who matter the most, the abused.

Perhaps praying in private may be a better response because we can raise awareness and support victims in so many other ways. However, only after providing justice because as the bible teaches, prayer without justice, like faith without good deeds, is dead (James 2:14).

Dr Christopher Longhurst, a Catholic theologian, serves on the executive of the Association of Practical Theology in Oceania, and is lecturer in theology at TeKupenga Theological College of Aotearoa New Zealand.

(The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of La Croix International).