Theology in action: How knowing the faith can help church, victims heal

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VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis and the Vatican have stepped up action concerning the protection of minors from abuse by clergy and the accountability of bishops to stop perpetrators.

The pope approved new procedures in June allowing the Vatican to investigate questions of accountability and he cemented the mandate of his own advisory body by approving the statutes of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. A number of bishops have stepped down the last two months after accusations they failed to protect minors and Vatican City State soon will bring to trial a former nuncio on charges of abuse and possession of child pornography under newly expanded laws.

All of this comes right before the one-year anniversary of the pope's first meeting with abuse survivors and his promise to "commit myself not to tolerate harm done to a minor by any individual," and to hold all bishops accountable for protecting young people.

He told survivors last July 7 that the "despicable actions" caused by clergy had been hidden for too long and had been "camouflaged with a complicity that cannot be explained."

As many continue to push for effective laws and procedures that will create safe environments, some abuse experts are saying it's also time to focus more on survivors.

The church, one theologian said, has to be more than just a fortress of guidelines and norms keeping abusers out and those not abused safe within, but it also must be an open, welcoming home for those who have been wounded and pushed away.

"The law is never enough because people were hurt," so they also need to find Christ's acceptance and compassion, not just stiff regulations, said Jesuit Father James Corkery, a theology professor at Rome's Pontifical Gregorian University.

There is a danger that too much emphasis on "action" and "fixing" things can create a "muscular Christianity" that crowds out any space for a more motherly embrace of her lost and wounded sheep, he said.

Father Corkery was one of a number of speakers at a news conference June 24 at the university. The panel presented their findings from the annual Anglophone Conference on the Safeguarding of Children, Young People and Vulnerable Adults.

Sponsored this year by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops together with the university's Center for Children Protection, the June 21-24 gathering was dedicated to building a spiritual and theological approach to child protection.

Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, a psychologist and member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, said a theological approach is crucial, even though some might think "that's wasted time, we should act."

However, such a reflection can help with prevention, discipline and healing, speakers said.

It looks at "an important question that was not put very often, 'What does God tell us with what has happened in the church,'" what is expected of the church, especially concerning power and community, and how should the church and her ministers behave, Father Zollner said.

Father Corkery said he looked at church teaching on salvation because the fact that "we are saved by Christ from our sins" does not resonate well with survivors because "they have been sinned against."

"Sin is not a category that is good for them to begin with. In fact, it could make them feel worse because they think the perpetrator has been forgiven," he said.

People who are abused by someone in the church may no longer feel "saved, but distinctly unsaved," the priest said.

"They also lose their sense of the church as a face of consolation, security, warmth. They feel doubly unsaved" because the "very place where they should look for some consolation and hope, well, that seems to be shut to them given what's happened within it," he said.

Father Corkery said survivors could find greater healing from a complementary view of salvation that emphasizes not just the sin people are saved "from," but that Jesus also saved people "for" something greater: "a flourishing life, health, restoration, wholeness."

Together with remembering that Jesus, who through no fault of his own, is a victim and suffers alongside other victims - this other sense of salvation shows how Christ "makes a difference now in our lives and not just in the world to come," he said.

Sister Sara Butler, a theologian and president of the Academy of Catholic Theology in Washington, said she discovered in her research that the church had developed a highly effective process for dealing with abusive clergy and negligent superiors in the 11th century.

At the time, abuse by clergy was "widespread, rampant, much worse than we have today and yet there was a way of controlling it," said Sister Sara, a member of the Missionary Servants of the Most Blessed Trinity.

She said St. Peter Damian, an 11th-century doctor of the church, tackled the problem, not by changing the doctrine of the priesthood, "but by disciplining the priests and the bishops and the major superiors who were responsible for tolerating this kind of abuse."

The Italian monk established policies and procedures that heavily involved the laity; the lay committees - similar to today's lay advisory boards - together with bishops and the pope, helped "bring to justice" both the perpetrators and their superiors, she said.

"This was a successful reform movement in the 11th century," which somehow got lost, but "is kind of a model for what we're doing today" when it comes to building greater accountability, she said.

Father Corkery said laypeople and church leaders still have a huge role to play in working to stop abuse and heal "the people who have been pushed out of the salvific community" of the church.

Everyone must empathize and walk with survivors, help them feel included, "take their accusations, their shrieks of anger, all the things that will come from them because they are suffering," he said.

But do so like Jesus, he said, in "an unprotected, vulnerable way because that would give love the best opportunity and them their best chance of walking together with us, toward the light that has been taken from them."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015