Mr. Shaun McAfee, O.P. is the author of Reform Yourself! and other books, is the founder and editor of EpicPew.com, and contributes to many online Catholic resources. He holds a Masters in Dogmatic Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. Shaun has made his temporary profession as a Lay Dominican and temporarily lives in Italy.
Bottom line, up front, there are two things you need to know about abuse in the Church: it’s nothing new, and it’s not acceptable.
No matter what someone tells you, abuse in the Church is nothing new. Beginning with Judas Iscariot, one of Jesus’ chosen twelve, abuse of power, position, and influence has been a concern. He used his power, position, and influence to betray the Son of Man. Consecrated bishops like Arius use their power as a means of gaining political infrastructure to push a heretical ideology on masses of priests, laity, and temporal offices of authority. Cardinals, popes, and all levels of clerical structure scourged the Church through scandals of abuse from the late middle ages until the Counter-Reformation by using their offices for financial gain, political power, and making devious sins and lack of discipline the norm.
The word abuse, therefore, is a term of art. It does not only apply to the modern issues of sexual abuse and cover-up. These are modern forms of abuse. And because abuse is always, on some level, a concern, it means abuse, on some level, is not going away. For the Church militant, there will always be usurpers of power, usurers of influence, and exploiters of position. It’s a sad reality, but it is a reality no matter what.
A reality, regardless, does not make it acceptable. Sin is a reality, but sin is never acceptable. How, then, do we best deal with scandal when it happens? It is, above all, important to have an appropriate and effective mindset and employ a reasonable reaction.
The natural response to abuse is similar to that of grief. Grief is the multifaceted emotional response to loss, and the loss that occurs during every abuse scandal is a loss of faith in leadership, a loss of confidence in structure, and a loss of assurance of the qualitative state of the faithful.
But abuses in the Church do not strictly induce grief. For some, they induce anxiety: some sense anxiety of emotional torment, or persecution. Scandals of abuse cause some to remain bitter. Others lose trust, almost permanently. Long past the anger of grief and bitterness, they associate the seats of clerical responsibility with the scandal as a permanent social scar. Each of these causes a person to life in a state of fear, causing a lack of spiritual growth and evangelical productivity. Scandals, therefore, are like viruses; they have the power to cripple and paralyze the faithful.
Abuse scandals, though, don’t have to cause anxiety, bitterness, permanent distrust, and the host of other emotional responses. Scandals, actually, may be used to increase awareness and vigilance, accountability, and even faith.
Every sin needs to be uprooted, and every scandal needs to be dealt with. But scandals, like sins, cannot be uprooted and vanquished until they are identified. When they’re identified, when they become aware to people other than their host, it increases awareness of not just the presence of these sins, but that there is still the need to be vigilant to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. Which leads to accountability.
Holding people accountable for their actions, as well as their inactions, is a must. Accountability is everyone’s job, and accountability gives the faithful the opportunity to demand better out of our leaders and to demand better leaders, period.
Finally, the scandal may be used to increase faith. It might seem like a stretch to some but sincere appreciation for the nature of the Christian Faith, a sword whose blade that is built on the helm of sacrifice for and forgiveness of sins, is only ascertained by appreciating the level of need for such sacrifice and for such forgiveness. People who believe they’re always right will never feel the need to hire a lawyer. People who never think they’ll get sick will never visit the hospital, let alone know the directions to get there. And people never think of their sin or the sins of the faithful will never realize the need for a savior. Knowing your savior is just as important as knowing how much you need your savior.
Abuse scandals, as horrendous as they are, may be used for opportunities of strengthening the armor and sharpening the swords. With this conviction as the footing of your reaction to the scandal, you’ll never slump into fear and hopelessness.