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18 December 2019

Collateral damages

The major crisis currently being experienced by the Catholic Church because of the various abuses committed by clergymen, men religious and women religious, is devastating for its credibility. The bearers of a message of truth cannot dissociate their behaviour from the testimony that their speech is intended to convey.

First, attention and help must undoubtedly be directed towards the victims, whether they are minors or adults. Any reparation or redress, long before being addressed in a pecuniary sense, must start with the reception and listening provided in response to people’s experience and the common search for a way towards a possible healing.

Collateral victims

The tragedy of abuse also creates collateral victims. In no way should the following statements be construed as a desire to qualify this primary and necessary attention offered to the victims.

I would like, however, in this webzine intended especially for heads of religious congregations, to share my experience of having run a community both at the provincial level (in Canada) and at the overall leadership level, where I was confronted more than once with situations of allegations and the need to manage cases of abuse.

I think about the people who assume the leadership of the congregations affected by these tragedies and of all those women and men religious who see the name they bear being tainted with a deep shame. To forget those elements in the sad phenomenon of sexual abuse would obscure some of the reality. The deplorable actions of some individuals do not make a whole community guilty, but all of its members suffer from it, many become discouraged and the community as a whole is affected by the concrete consequences.

Re-reading our history

Moments of personal crisis are complex and it becomes necessary to call out for help. Courageous indeed are the people able to resist the temptation to close themselves off from the world and endeavour instead to knock on the right doors for help. Religious congregations are also complex universes that have a tendency to erect protective walls around themselves so that problems can be solved in the family. In the short term, congregational leaders have to face the imperatives of denouncing sexual or psychological abuse. In the medium and long term, a process is also needed to ensure that the history of a religious family—the mission it has carried out over the years, and the dedication of so many consecrated women and men—does not collapse. Indeed, the weight of a sentence that turns into shame can lead to discouragement and disengagement. What a sad life it is to no longer be able to look at oneself in the mirror of your community’s history!

I dare to suggest one avenue: let’s not try to re-read our history all by ourselves. We need the help of women and men who will bring us an enlightened, wise and just view. A look from the outside that airs out the interior and gives it back the taste to live. Not a vision of “Don’t worry…” that would deny the gravity of the situation, but a perspective that raises the eyes without denying the mistakes made. That is when prayer becomes spiritually powerful because a look of faith that knows how to identify the pitfalls of the road, but does not accept collapse, leads to a renewed future.

The way of consolation

In his encyclical Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict XVI Pointed out the foundations of hope in this troubled world.

Indeed, to accept the “other” who suffers, means that I take up his suffering in such a way that it becomes mine also. Because it has now become a shared suffering, though, in which another person is present, this suffering is penetrated by the light of love. The Latin word con-solatio, “consolation”, expresses this beautifully. It suggests being with the other in his solitude, so that it ceases to be solitude. (Spe Salvi #38)

Congregations always have a testimony to bear. Whether it be in their moments of joy or their moments of trial, they must testify to a hope that brings about what is promised to us in the present.

At the heart of all these painful situations of abuses committed in the Church, we—women and men religious—must be women and men with consoling hearts. Let us be with the people who are suffering, the direct victims of abuse, or those others, the collateral victims, who must also bear those trespasses. Let us give ourselves the means to calmly re-read our history with the “wise ones” of this world who will be able to remind us of the lesson of the Parable of the Weeds (tares) among the good Wheat.

On the paths where we are struggling,
how good it is,
Lord, to meet your cross!
On the summits we seek, we know it Lord,
we will find your cross!
And when we finally see you in the light, Lord,
we will understand your cross!
(Hymn of Good Friday)

Alain Ambeault, CSV
Executive director, Canadian Religious Conference

This witness is taken from the Autumn 2019 issue of the ad vitam webzine “Abuse in the Church: Between Crisis and Hope”.