A Talk with Sister Camille D'arienzo

By Michael Paulson
Boston Globe

August 31, 2008

FORGIVENESS HAS ALWAYS been one of those concepts that vexes Christians.

Central to Christian identity, it is described in the Lord's Prayer - "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us" - recited by Catholics and Protestants alike.

But each time there is a horrible crime - the Holocaust, Sept. 11 - religious thinkers are confronted with the question of just what it means to be forgiving.

Two years ago, the Amish community of Nickel Mines, Pa., jolted theologians with a startling real-life example of what it means to take forgiveness seriously, when they publicly forgave the shooter who gunned down five Amish schoolgirls.

Now comes a Catholic nun, Sister Camille D'Arienzo, who is intentionally touching off a new debate about the role of forgiveness in Christendom by asking whether it is time to discuss forgiveness for clergy sexual abusers. D'Arienzo, 75, is a former elementary school teacher and college professor who for a time served as the president of her community, the Brooklyn region of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, and as the president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. She has been a commentator on Catholic issues who appears weekly on WINS radio in New York; she is also an outspoken critic of capital punishment and the spiritual director to a man on death row in Indiana.

Jennifer Taylor for the Boston Globe

Two weeks ago, she wrote an essay for America magazine, the Jesuit weekly, asking "Has the church, from top to bottom, determined that those who have sexually abused minors are outside of the circle of those whom God can forgive? Is there no grace left for them?"

The article generated a variety of responses, both on America's website and on the Globe's religion blog, which linked to the piece.

Last week, D'Arienzo talked with the Globe about her reasons for raising the subject. She did so, she said, with some reluctance, "because I know that the pain there is profound and the suffering is not over." But, she said, she believes the conversation is one worth having.

IDEAS: Why discuss forgiveness for sexual abusers?

D'ARIENZO: I have been troubled by the failure of the church and the broader community to even suggest that there is redemption for those who have sinned in any capacity and who have repented. So into the silence, after many years of thinking and praying, and knowing that no matter what I say my words will be misinterpreted, I thought someone has got to start this conversation going. And so, I did.

IDEAS: Have you long been interested in forgiveness?

D'ARIENZO: Absolutely. I've had enough of hurt in my own life, and I have witnessed enough in my very long life, to know that as long as we hold on to the thing that has hurt us, and hatred for the person who has perpetrated, that we remain to some degree in the grasp of the evil that we should escape.Continued...

IDEAS: Why did you want to wade into this subject? You must have known it was a bit of a thicket.

D'ARIENZO: Because I feel that the truth will set us free. And we are so enslaved by impotence and rage and misunderstanding and silence. I don't see anywhere {hellip} that the official ecclesiastical church is suggesting any sort of policies or any sort of responsibility of the entire community, not just the victims, to bring about some sort of healing, and to include in the mix the suggestion that forgiveness may be one of the ways that at least some of the people who are so damaged on both sides of the equation may be able to live fuller lives. {hellip} Forgiveness sucks the hatred out of the situation and allows us to go forward, that's what I have been trying to say, not because I am the smartest one, but maybe because I am the one in the providence of God who at this moment feels called upon to break the silence.

IDEAS: How do you sense the lack of forgiveness?

D'ARIENZO: I don't hear anyone saying that people involved in this particular tragedy either deserve forgiveness or are called to extend it. And I am a member of this church. I have loved it my whole life. I have given my life to this church. I'm not young - I'm 75 years old, and I have spent my life. And if I were to see a person starving, I would bring food. I think the starvation is for encouragement for compassion and mercy.

IDEAS: Many of the people who have responded to your article have questioned whether forgiving means forgetting, and whether forgiveness takes the place of punishment.

D'ARIENZO: It does not mean forgetting, nor does it rule out punishment appropriate to criminal behavior. To be forgiven from the sin doesn't carry with it pardon for the crime.

IDEAS: Who can extend forgiveness?

D'ARIENZO: I don't think forgiveness is the province of any one person. ... If somebody were to murder my grandniece, or someone else, I would have no right to extend that public forgiveness for an abuse done to someone else. The forgiveness has to come from the persons closest, and that cannot be imposed.

But what I can do? I mean I would be so devastated, I would probably be unable to do anything, but if I had my wits about me, then I would extend comfort to the person who suffered the loss of the child, and I would pray that forgiveness could come, and I would have to pray that the person who committed that crime would be brought to justice, and would resolve never, either through incarceration or whatever, never to hurt another person again.

I don't think that we can extend the same kind of forgiveness that the person who was abused can extend. But still, we contribute to the atmosphere where forgiveness can flourish or not.

IDEAS: So you have had to grapple with forgiveness yourself?

D'ARIENZO: I have indeed. I choose not to spread my personal story here, but I can tell you this much: My mother died when I was young, my father remarried, and it was a very painful, painful childhood. But out of the pain, out of the kind of abuse that my younger sister and I experienced, there came all kinds of opportunities for grace. I knew that I had to forgive, and I did, I forgave early on, but from out of the evil, once I could release myself from that {hellip} then I had a freedom to look to the light, to cling to my faith, and to learn from the misery that I had experienced to be one of the most compassionate teachers you would ever have found. {hellip} Especially as an elementary school teacher, I was able to reach out with tenderness and understanding in a way that I would never have been able to do had I not gone through my own crucible.

IDEAS: Does forgiveness require repentance by the perpetrator?

D'ARIENZO: Maybe forgiveness is too broad a term. Maybe it is the relinquishing of the hatred that is freeing. I think about Marietta Jaeger, whose little daughter was taken from their tent, she was raped, she was murdered by a Vietnam veteran, and Marietta said that to honor her daughter's memory, she had to extend forgiveness.

IDEAS: What is your hope for what your essay will accomplish?

D'ARIENZO: I'm hoping that the conversation that I started will improve and will draw on deeper wisdom than I have to offer and that somehow the larger community will engage in creating a climate where forgiveness can flourish, where those who have been harmed by sexual abuse may find solace and relief, and where those who have perpetrated the abuse will be brought to repentance, and I suspect many of them already have, and will be given another chance at continuing respectable lives.

IDEAS: And how has the reaction affected you?

D'ARIENZO: I'm exhausted. It has been such an intense experience. Somewhere in my article I say it's like entering a surgical ward - you don't want to hurt anything, you don't want to touch anything. But you know you've got to do something, because not to do it is to be somehow dishonest or unfaithful to what we believe as a church, as a human family.

Michael Paulson covers religion for the Globe. He blogs at and can be reached at


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