Papal Visit a 'Both/and' Moment in Sex-Abuse Crisis

By Frawley-O'dea, Mary Gail | National Catholic Reporter, May 16, 2008 | Go to article overview

Papal Visit a 'Both/and' Moment in Sex-Abuse Crisis


Frawley-O'dea, Mary Gail, National Catholic Reporter


Dispassionate discourse about the sexual abuse of children is an oxymoron. The subject touches our most primitive passions and fears, rendering rational thought and balanced reflection difficult to sustain. Pope Benedict XVI's mid-April visit to the United States set in relief these discursive challenges. Reactions to him tended to devolve into defensive "either/or" dichotomies--either his visit was a tremendously transformational moment in the scandal or he continued to miss the boat in hurtful ways. In fact, his trip provided a "both/and" moment in the crisis still tearing at the church.

Benedict spoke about the tragedy and evil of sexual abuse five times in a variety of venues. First, he expressed deep shame over the sexual abuse of young people by priests. He also seemed finally to acknowledge that homosexuality and pedophilia are distinctive entities, making it more difficult for commentators to reconstruct sexual abuse by priests as a homosexual phenomenon.

In speaking to reporters on his flight from Rome, the pope said, "I do not wish to talk at this moment about homosexuality, but about pedophilia, which is another thing." The pope continued, "We will absolutely exclude pedophiles from the sacred ministry."

Benedict preached that the sexual-abuse crisis and its consequences are not past history, but rather continue to require the attention and care of all Catholics. This message challenges laypeople, priests and bishops who want to declare a victory.

More important than any of his words, Benedict met with victims. With a pastor's heart, the pontiff touched five victims, symbolic representatives of all victims. Every one of us holds a fundamental responsibility to bear witness to injustice and its attendant suffering and to try to lift up those in pain. Jesus insists on it. Benedict bore witness. How can any American bishop refuse ever again to meet with a victim when the pope offered the fullness of his presence in this way?

Stuck with the trauma

Some victims minimized Benedict's focus on sexual abuse, including his meeting with victims. It was painful to read that some even questioned why these five victims should be chosen, as if somehow certain victims are more worthy than others in what should be an egalitarian sisterhood and brotherhood of sufferers. As painful as the life of a survivor can be, there is an emotional adhesion to the trauma as a primary wellspring of identity that can underlie these reactions. In some ways, yesterday remains for a survivor more salient than today. Yale theologian David Kelsey puts it well: "A problem with defining personal identity as the subject of horrific events is that it distorts one's identity by binding it to [those events]. The problem lies not so much with the horror as with the pastness. One's future [and present, adds by this author] are defined by, and so are in bondage to, an event in the past."

In addition, sexual abuse survivors often have a low tolerance for ambiguity, partial solutions or the gray that characterizes most of life's issues. It is understandable. Early on, perpetrators and bystanders twisted reality, insisting that abuse was love, innocence was guilt, and compliance with power and authority was desire. In the case of the church, survivors coming forward were met with half-truths, secret agreements and pressure to protect the church from scandal. Adult survivors, then, yearning for validation of their experiences with both perpetrators and chancery officials, feel destabilized and suspicious when imperfect gestures seem to be offered as solutions rather than steppingstones. Panic replaces reflection as fears of being let down once again take over in a classic posttraumatic stress response.

Anger important to healing

Recognizing the good the pope did does not invalidate the ongoing suffering of any victim, but it can feel to the survivor like an unacceptable submission to power once perverted. …

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