The Roman Catholic Church Waffles Again: Belgium's Story

By Catherine McCall
Psychology Today
September 22, 2010

I've always thought Belgian waffles were sickening -- too much sugary fluff -- but this one takes the cake. Steven Erlanger's article in the New York Times on Monday was yet another riveting report about Catholic clergy who've sexually abused children: 475 victims, 19 of whom have attempted suicide, and 13 "successfully" (quotations are my addition) ended their lives. Were they living in psychological torture chambers, plagued with fear, guilt, flashbacks, confusion, anger, depression, anxiety, shame, financial hardship from years of therapy bills? Were they trying to escape the hell of alienation from any sense of hope, of the sacred, of peace and safety, of joy?

I read the article right before bed Monday night (not a wise choice) and awakened at five Tuesday morning after a fitful sleep. Horrifying images of traumatized children had floated through my mind as I tossed and turned during the night, and once I got up all I could think about was the fact that Belgium's longest-serving bishop, Roger Vangheluwe, abused his own nephew for 13 years. Sin. Sin. Sin. Sin. Sin. And more sin.

Erlanger's article went on to say that Cardinal Godfried (interestingly appropriate name, don't you think?) Danneels has been badly damaged by his effort, caught on tape, to allow the bishop to retire early. I wonder, what was meant by badly damaged? The next item was encouraging though: Pope Benedict XVI, despite objections from Belgium's bishops, appointed a new archbishop, Andre-Joseph Leonard, who had not been enmeshed with the others. The existing bishops didn't want an outsider coming in. This posture has been a serious problem with the Catholic clergy all along. Their investment in being a closed system is a problem that has, in the secular world, been typically characteristic of family systems in which incest exists. Christine Courtois, in Healing the Incest Wound: Adult Survivors in Therapy, explains that though the typical incest family has rigid boundaries with respect to outsiders, leaving them socially, psychologically, and physically isolated, appropriate boundaries between individual family members and between generations are lacking. Sound familiar?

Archbishop Leonard intervened on behalf of the survivors, by releasing a graphic, 200-page report prepared by child psychiatrist Peter Adriaenssens, who worked with hundreds of abuse survivors who came forward after Cardinal God fried Danneels resigned. Bravo! A church leader finally facing the past squarely, without nostalgia, without denial, without numbness, I thought. Furthermore, last week, the new archbishop promised to open a center for victims and vowed that new cases will go to secular law enforcement authorities. Though I can't imagine how any survivor would feel safe, how any survivor could trust that this center would truly be a place of healing, something I'd read in Matthew Fox's 1999 book, Sins of the Spirit; Blessings of the Flesh, had stayed with me and seemed to apply here, that "harder than coming together around the reality of sin, is coming up with ways out of sin: liberating ways to freedom," so I began to feel hopeful. But then I read that Archbishop Leonard made no apology and asked for more time to fashion a comprehensive response, which disappointed many, including me, and that though the Vatican wants national churches to handle issues related to sexual abuse scandals themselves, the Italian bishops, lead by Benedict, have done little to investigate abuses. My heart sank, I reached toward my bookshelf and pulled out The Gold Cell by Sharon Olds, one of my favorite poets. She's got a clever poem on page 19, entitled The Pope's Penis. I don't think I've looked at that poem since the day I unwrapped the collection, a gift from a dear friend, 15 years ago. It cracked me up then, but not today.

Today it's a solemn reminder that the pope is just a guy, just a human being, and so are the bishops and archbishops and cardinals. Like all of us, their sins are signs of their brokenness. In Journeys by Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power by Rita Nakashima Brock, she writes that "we are broken by the world of our relationships before we are able to defend ourselves. It is not a damage we willfully choose. Those who damage us do not have the power to heal us, for they themselves are not healed." She goes on to explain that "to be healed, we must take the responsibility for recognizing our own damage by following our hearts to the relationships that will empower our self-healing."

Among the relationships that have penetrated my heart with healing energy has been my relationship with words -- the Word of God in Scripture; lyrics in songs; hymns; the kind words of friends; the wise words of therapists; the honest words of my loving husband; the stimulating words of colleagues, the giggling words of my grandchildren. These words have helped me to integrate my own history of repeated sexual abuse by my father, as have the words in the book that I wrote.

Matthew Fox is one in a community of authors whose books have been particularly nourishing to me along my healing journey. Once a Catholic priest and now an Episcopalian one, in his previously mentioned book he explains that "the priest is meant to preach and teach as an inspirer, a prophet who interferes with whatever is blocking compassion from happening in the community. The priest is the one who knows something from experience (not just from academic texts) about the word of God in the context of the daily flesh of people's lives...The priest is meant to be prophetic - to speak out in the name of justice and tell the creation story that gives a context to our lives and a reverence and joy at living...helps us to reconcile and forgive and start anew." Matthew's perspective is that "all workers are priests. All work worthy of the name is meant to bring the sacred alive in the world."

And that's the primary lesson I take from reports of continuing anguish for all involved in the sexual abuse scandals of the Catholic Church: that I need to be about my priestly business each day, and that I need a community of companions, and that the healthier my companions are - the more open and involved in their own healing processes - the brighter our lights will shine. The fact that the Catholic Church is failing all who have endured clergy abuse and all who love them, need not be a detractor either to those of us who are healing or to healers. We can work it instead, to be a personal reminder of our call to bring the sacred alive in this world. What lessons do you take?


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