More on Forgiveness and Clergy Abuse Situation: Kaya Oakes on Need for New Understandings
By William D. Lindsey
March 5, 2020
A month ago, Ruth Krall offered us a valuable statement about the "sin or crime" dilemma facing religious bodies as they deal with sexual abuse of vulnerable people by religious authority figures. Should a community frame sexual abuse of the vulnerable by pastors, priests, religious authority figures primarily in terms of forgiveness? Or should religious communities begin from the starting point of recognizing that sexual abuse of minors is a crime, as they deal with these issues?
Ruth's essay was a meditation on what forgiveness means in a religious or theological context. It provoked a lively, fruitful discussion which signals to me how much this theological investigation is needed right now. As I noted in a posting building on Ruth's essay, one of its important contributions was to highlight what Christian communities of faith might learn from Jewish discussions of sin and forgiveness.
Given our recent discussion of these issues, I'm interested to see in Kaya Oakes' recent essay "On Forgiveness, Clergy Abuse, and the Need for New Understandings" the following tesimony:
But in spite of the many cases of abuse coming to light around the world, the clerical impulse to plead for forgiveness, and what that does to victims, has rarely been discussed. In 2018, I pitched a story on the role of forgiveness in clergy abuse to a Catholic magazine for which I occasionally write. My hunch was that, like many of the women who were being asked to forgive abusive men as #MeToo revelations unfolded, many victims of clergy abuse might be hesitant to grant forgiveness to those who had violated them because of the corrosive nature of trauma.
Assuming that Catholics had written widely on clergy forgiveness, I spent a month researching the article. Yet I struggled to find any Catholic sources that specifically addressed what clergy abuse victims should do when the Church asks them for forgiveness. In fact, I found nothing. When my primary sources turned out to be mostly female Protestant clergy and Jewish rabbis who proposed that victims do not owe their abusers forgiveness, I probably shouldn’t have been too surprised when the Catholic magazine I wrote this article for decided not to publish it. Their concern was that the article would be perceived as anti-Catholic because, they insisted, Jesus tells his followers they need to forgive anyone who has wronged them. Although I later published the article in an interfaith magazine, the experience left me wondering why Catholics talk so much about forgiveness without a deeper conversation about what forgiveness actually means for victims of clergy sexual abuse.
Kaya writes as a Catholic theologian who has sought to research Catholic reflections on the topic of forgiveness, as it relates to the discussion of clergy sexual abuse of minors and other vulnerable people. She finds a dearth of Catholic reflection on this topic.
When she sought to write about these issues in a Catholic context, publishing in a Catholic journal, she met resistance: "Their concern was that the article would be perceived as anti-Catholic because, they insisted, Jesus tells his followers they need to forgive anyone who has wronged them."
She finds that the most valuable sources for meaningful discussion of these issues being published at present are reflections written by female Protestant clergy and Jewish rabbis — not Catholic theologians, journalists, or pastors. (I'd also add: and by ex-evangelicals — see the thread Blake Chastain recently started on Twitter, of which the tweet at the head of this posting is his opening statement.)
The parallels between Ruth Krall's essay, with its recommendation that Christian communities seeking to understand the topic of forgiveness in light of the abuse situation listen respectfully to Jewish thinkers, and Kaya Oakes' essay, seem striking to me. A question the interface between these two essays raises for me: why is meaningful Catholic discussion of the topic of forgiveness in light of the abuse situation been so jejune, so hard to find? What has shut down this discussion?
What impelled the Amish community on which Ruth's statement focuses to offer seemingly cheap and easy forgiveness to a notorious sex offender that community had long harbored — when the criminal justice system did not dispense such cheap and easy forgiveness to him? Why is it that the most valuable resources many Christian communities can find right now (if they're even willing to look for them) as they discuss the issue of sin and forgiveness in light of the abuse situation are resources written quite specifically by female pastors and rabbis?
Questions I'd want to raise in light of this discussion:
1. Is it really accidental that Christian communities of faith dominated by male leadership structures that deliberately exclude women from leadership roles are prone to dispense forgiveness to male religious leaders in a very quick, easy, and seemingly cheap way?
2. Why is the quick, easy, and cheap forgiveness that these communities often dispense to (straight) male religious leaders who transgress sexual boundaries not so quick, easy, and cheap when LGBTQ people, women, and abuse survivors seek the understanding of these communities?
3. Has forgiveness become in some religious contexts a commodity dispensed by male-dominated religious structures, in which males have always controlled the distribution of the "products" of their religious system — control exercised by their domination of the interpretation of sacred texts, by their ownership of pulpits, by their exclusion of women from presiding at religious rituals?
4. Why do many Catholic journalists and academics seem unwilling to raise questions like this? Is the Catholic church inherently wedded to heterosexist male control, so that theological or moral questions that move outside the boundaries of such control, probing its claims and right to be there, are quickly squelched?
Just asking, as I'm prone to do….