Charles Lewis: Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin

By Charles Lewis
National Post (Canada)
August 19, 2008

In the most recent issue of America Magazine, a Catholic weekly published by the Jesuits, Sister Camille D'Arienzo has written a compelling and courageous piece called Mercy Toward Our Fathers. It opens up the highly controversial subject of offering forgiveness to priests who abused children.

Retired Roman Catholic priest Father Paul Shanley stands between two court officers during a bail reduction hearing requested by his attorney May 9, 2002 in Middlesex Superior Court in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Shanley was arrested n San Diego and returned to Massachusetts to face three charges of rape of a child for crimes that allegedly occurred in the 1980s when he was a Roman Catholic priest serving in the Archdiocese of Boston.
Photo by George Rizer

In 2002, massive allegations came to the surface of abuse by Catholic priests, especially in the Los Angeles and Boston areas. In Los Angeles, for example, the Church paid out US$100-million to compensate 87 sex abuse victims. And then spent millions more to compensate scores of further victims across the country. It remains an especially painful issue, given that many abusers were shuttled from parish to parish in the hopes they would vanish quietly into the system.

This is not an issue that will dissipate any time soon. Last week, for instance, the Archdiocese of Cincinnati published new guidelines for what priests could do with children. It prohibits big hugs, lap-sitting and putting children on one's shoulder or back, as well as bans on kissing, tickling or wrestling.

Sister D'Arienzo, a nun for 57 years and a member of the Religious Sisters of Mercy in Brooklyn, N.Y., has worked with men on death row as well as the families of murder victims. That experience led her to the idea of looking at the possibility of reconciliation with fallen priests. As she states in the America article, "Holding onto anger has been likened to taking a sip of poison every day — not enough to kill, but more than enough to debilitate."

She takes care to point out that her first concern is for the victims and their loved ones. And that anyone trying to bring the message of forgiveness and reconciliation — a core part of the Christian faith — must do so delicately. "Words that are meant to comfort and console can further aggravate and ignite." She also adds one more important point: forgiveness does not mean forgetting or letting the perpetrator escape punishment.

I spoke to Sister Camille on Tuesday to try to try to get a better understanding of her views.

Q. How did you come to this idea of seeking some kind of reconciliation with sexual abusers?

A. I worked as a spiritual advisor for a man on death row in Indiana. After a couple of years of doing that I thought I should really be doing something for victims. Eight years ago I started having annual services for families of murder victims at our Mother House. Last year we had about 80 people come, most of whom who had lost a son to gun shots. For all the people who have been coming all these years, only two called for the death penalty for their sons' murderers. Because I have been involved with the death penalty, I have this sense that all murderers are not the same. There are some that are pathologically insane and others who commit in a time of passion. That sparked my belief that those who have been accused of sexual molestation are not all on the same plane.

Q. Do you envision a priest guilty of abuse ever being brought back into the service of the Church?

A. It depends. Was he a many-time offender or was it something that happened during one short time in his life and he never did it again and has an unblemished record of 20 years since. There's no one-size-fits-all in any situation. Perhaps that priest could be brought back in some capacity. Never around children but maybe in a retirement home or a monastery. I don't have the answer. What I have is great sadness with what is now: that these priests are living with a spiritual death sentence.

Q. You say you feel a tremendous sadness over this. Many people are not going to understand that.

A. My first sadness is for the victim and for those who love the victim and feel betrayed. That is paramount. I have another sadness, though. There seems to be neither the wisdom or the courage in the leadership of the Church to encourage compassion for the sinner, for the one who has done this horrible thing. And of course I am as sorry for the predator who has a sexual addiction as I would be for an alcoholic or a dope addict. Because there is an illness. There's a whole swath of abusers who are sick. That's one kind of concern for people who are ill. And another concern for those who had brief encounters in which they perpetrated evil on an innocent victim and who recognize that sinfulness and have repented and amended their ways and have done the best that they can to live good moral lives after the fall. What more can we ask of a human being?

My primary concern is that no child should suffer what the other children have suffered. That is one of my concerns with the priests who are abandoned, who are in disgrace — the very misery and shame that they feel might move them to do more of the same evil. Because no one has any hope for them. Or any encouragement for them. It seems to me you allow the evil to further fester if a person thinks that he is not capable of living a better life because that's what society has told them.

Q. Can a mere mortal forgive this kind sin?

A. My hope is that someone reading the article will have the grace and the wisdom to know when and with whom to broach the topic of forgiveness. I know that words meant to console and comfort can further ignite and aggravate victims. You can make a case for slience in every horror the world has ever known. We have histories of silence. Those who speak out are really setting themselves up for misunderstanding and anger. And that's not at all what one wants.

Q. Can you talk about the notion of forgiveness? Many say the ability to forgive, even in extreme situations, is fundamental to the gospel message.

A. [Forgiveness] is in my spirituality. People hear God's teaching in different ways. There is the scriptural mandate that "to whom much is forgiven of that one much is required." Some of us had a deeper and broader experience of religion and its impact: the good and not-so-good of it. For me to be silent was not appropriate. One of the most important things is that not everyone heals at the same rate or that everybody is ready for whatever medicine is available. To go too soon into someone who is hurting is to inflict greater suffering. And that's one of my concerns. But is there a way for a caring community to help the person who needs healing?

Q. What do you hope to accomplish by talking about this?

A. It's a twin hope. I cannot separate these hopes. One is that the person who has been hurt will consider extending forgiveness or at least to pray for the grace to want to forgive. And the one who has caused the pain will also experience forgiveness.


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