Meditating on Abuse – and Repenting

Post by Dominican
Meditating on Abuse
– and Repenting
Joseph Veale S.J.

Father Joseph Veale, who taught for decades in Gonzaga College, also wrote on the Spiritual Exercises.

God of mercy, free your Church from sin and protect it from evil. (The Roman Missal, Lent)

Many voices have been saying that in Ireland the Church needs to make a public symbolic act of repentance.

The Pope’s impassioned asking for forgiveness in Israel or Archbishop Desmond Connell’s personal affirmation on Ash Wednesday are in a different world from protestations of apology. The press translate the language of forgiveness into the secular language of apology. We apologise for a moral fault. We ask forgiveness for our sins.

Tony Blair apologies for the famine. That is fine; it is the acceptable language of the statesman. Is that what we want to do? And for what? It has often these days been pointed out that my guilt for my sins is a different kind of reality to my acknowledgement that in the 1940s and 1950s, ‘society’ (including me) and the state are guilty of neglecting and ill-treating young people.


My concern is with the question of truth. Jesus said something about not standing on the street corners doing penance. He was addressing the Pharisees. By all means let a person do penance privately for his own sins. He had better be sure he means it. If he doesn’t that is between himself and God. But I think Irish Catholics are wary of anything they sense might be of the spirit of the Pharisees.

A collective act of penance could run the risk of being false. The less important matter, looking false, is another matter, It  is of small importance, though it may be painful, that parts of the press saw the pope’s plea to God for forgiveness as an exercise in public relations, as falling short, as being done under pressure, as a wily exercise in justification of the Church’s past. If we could be sure of our grief, then it is of no matter if people misinterpret it. What matters is being true.


It can be easy to beat one’s breast for other people’s sins. Words come cheap. A shared public act of repentance must not be cheap.  Private repentance is hard enough. It does not happen by saying or thinking it. We know how long a person may have to pray and strive before the grace of compunctions is given. If personal contrition can be costly and sometimes the fruit of long waiting – in other words experienced as grace – then collective repentance is likely to take longer and to need strenuous collective preparation.

Institutions could set aside millions in reparation and people would yawn. It is not finance that is costly.

To begin with, we have to face how we feel in the presence of abuse. It may be that individuals have done that. But if the community of faith is to emerge from trauma, from disappointment with leadership, from confusion, from a loss of nerve, from denial, some attempt to put words on our feelings may be needed.

All the people of God in Ireland, the whole body, have been wounded. The wound is not in anything so surface as loss of influence or diminished power. It is deeper than that, deeper too than the level of morality. It goes deeper, probably than we realise yet. Just as a person does  not know his sin to be what it really is until he has repented and been forgiven, it may be that we will not know how deep the spiritual hurt has been until we have been through some process of recognition, acknowledgement and sorrow. We need to grieve. That takes longer.


The Church is in shock. Many are in denial. The disclosure of sex abuse and cruelty came when people were already disenchanted with the church, with the whole setup, with religion in general. That goes back a long way. It was masked by a smugness on the part of the official Church and a deference and conformism in the presence of the clergy. There is a strain of savage satire and hilarity that was not silent by Irish firesides. Ever. Craw-thumping came naturally to many and could go along with secret contempt. It suited many to connive with putting priests on a pedestal, to have plaster statues to keep at a safe distance, to throw sods at when they were angry or just to have an authority figure to gripe about. The sin-less priest, not fully human, was a fiction. No one really believed it, but it served a purpose to pretend. The revelations of abuse fell into a culture that for decades had seen through clerical screens.

There is a younger generation now who are simply indifferent to religion; the plight of the Church does not impinge on them; religion is not part of their conscious world. There are those in that generation who have a committed faith; they find the angers of so many commentators irrelevant.  What is interesting is an older generation, from, say, 50 upwards who often grimly cling to something they sense to be of the greatest value, who do not quite know why they bother. There are others of that generation who are committed and devout and often have taken the trouble to learn why they are. The Church has to reflect on the reasons why by and large those devout Catholics are not speaking out to praise the Brothers and Sisters of Mercy, the Oblates. That is a strange silence.

Could it be that devout Catholic feel an unconscious resentment at what they perceive to have the Church’s repressive sexual restrictions? That they have been the ‘Philip-Larkined’ by the Church?  (‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad. / They may not mean to do but they do.’) That their sexual lives, the central energy of their humanity, whether they are married or not, were mucked up by Catholicism? That may be strenuously denied. But we need to listen. Could it be that there is a strong subterranean electric currant that links that suspicion with the accusations of clerical abusing? It could be that that resentment is strongest among women, a sense that male clerics were in cahoots with unfeeling Irish males. The male world had the power.


If the Church wants to protest its sorrow, we may need to spend first a long time looking at our use of power.

The conversion of many a saint was occasioned by an experience of failure, of the upsetting of a comfortable goodness, of a dislocation that disturbed deep layers of unattended reality. The Archbishop Cullen Church has been interiorly dislocated. It can change this and that, comfort the troubled, leave familiar structures in place. Or it can embark on the ‘long and painful of conversion, a path that will lead us to re-examine the very foundations of the Church.’(1) That would ask each of us and all of us together in some way to examine how exactly, concretely, ‘the Christian faith [has] been pressed into service of a different kingdom.’ (Eamonn Conway)

Father Conway says that the privileged ones who can show the way, if we are able to listen, are those who abused and those who were abused:

These people have a mission to the Church, they call the Church to recover its own hidden depths in Jesus Christ which have been obscured by centuries of conformity to the very exercises of power – which Christ abhorred.

Besides, the experience is already within each of us. The raw material of conversion is not far to seek.

There has been some tendency simply to assume that the exercise of power and its abuse is mostly male, ‘the transformation of phallic energy into dominative power.’ (Sebastian Moore) Yet Andrew Greeley, hesitantly, tentatively and almost incredulously, says that one research (USA) reports that in 60% of cases males have been sexually abused by women. (Doctrine and Life, February 2000) It would be a dereliction to use that hesitant judgement to deflect attention from the abuse, in the name of religion, of male power.

Psychologists Olive Travers and Marie Keenan and theologian Sebastian Moore testify to the conviction that there is a link between sexual abuse and power. ‘Sexual abuse is often as much about control and power as it is about sex.’(Olive Travers) And, besides, it seems that the one who sexually abuses power, does  so within a feeling of being powerless.


We may need to name what might lie behind the coincidence of feeling powerless and abusing power. With the abuse of power who knows what other powers were at work besides? Celibate communities are no different from families, they stretch from normal healthy dysfunction all the way to pathology. Might we extrapolate from the experience of a reasonably happy and sane community life in the days before Vatican II on the way it may have been in a bleaker world?

Can we imagine, just imagine, what private pain may have been rooted in a complex loneliness, of isolation, of having  no human being to relate to the desert in the heart, the language of self-denial that twisted into self -abasement, the self-hatred, the conviction of worthlessness, the unattended guild, the rage at being done to, the having no say in the disposition of one’s own life, the indignities of impersonal rule, the comfort of a dependency that could suddenly reverse into angry rebellion, the living environment that was spartan, the lack of amenity, the walls denuded of beauty, the ‘spiritual’ assumptions that dehumanised? And the longing for human contact, for touch, for talk, for being listened to, the unavailability of spiritual direction, the ache for tenderness or gentleness?

The focus should be on a particular style of religious life as it was, on all its conditions. The focus has been on chastity. Young men were sent without assessment into a sexless life and left to sink or swim, without instruction or counsel or sympathetic care or the kind of human community that alone makes chastity wholesome. Langland’s ‘Chastity without charity shall be chained in hell’ could be glossed to say that celibacy is a loveless environment easily twists into an approximation to hell. Chastity was lived in conjunction withpoverty and obedience, There was, at times and in some places, a culture of clerical and religious life that was impoverished and was bolstered by a debased rhetoric of obedience and a skewed supporting spirituality.

We all stood by and said nothing. If we sensed that something was wrong, no-one shouted Stop, That whole mode of living was assumed to be holy and by itself a road to holiness, because it was taken to be ageless. Vatican II changed much of that. It is only now that the cost in humanity is coming to light.

Another area that invites self-examining and conversion is sexuality itself. The great pain of these years demands that we face the nerviness of the Church in the presence of eros. The reiteration of theological principles about the beauty of connubiality does not deceived anyone. Another message is given by the uneasiness with their own sexuality conveyed, by and large, by the celibate male system. A compensating spurious confidence can be put in place by the use or misuse of power. The worldwide incidence of abuse is putting it to the magisterium to re-work its sexual theology. It is the Galileo case of these times.


The way the media in general speak (with a few exceptions, like Kevin Myers) it is as though the ‘church’ was a clinically free agent standing outside, standing above, the helpless people it tyrannised.

The clerical Church is composed of males formed by a particular culture, by Irish mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers, by shared culture in Ballaghadereen and Donnybrook. The clerical celibate culture males were inducted into, was formed already by attitudes and feelings created by osmosis, not by rationality. Nor was there any softening influence of poetry or literature or art. The great fear was softness. The clerical world (diocesan and religious) was aggressively masculine, philistine and assured of its superiority to women.

It is all too easy to blame clerical scandals for the crumbling of the Cullen-McQuaid Church. It would have had to happen anyway. Lay people – newly and widely educated – would not (eventually) have been content to be present inert at Mass and to let the clergy run things. Many have long since, long before the appearance of the term ‘à la carte Catholic’, been able to take or let go as conscience required. The enamelled surface of a uniform, monolithic, table d’hote, Irish Church was a convenient fiction.


Clericalism was characterised by a condescending air toward non-clerics, an air of being separate. If lay men were patronised, women were given tongue-in-cheek respect, and trebly condescended to. There was an eagerness to make people’s moral judgements for them, something a certain proportion of the people wanted. They were encouraged to want it. But the result is an infantilism that has patently shown up in the failure of a generation of politicians and business people to internalise principles of moral integrity. We clergy, some of us at least, dissembled our frailty, our fallibility, at whatever cost to our humanity. There was a corresponding inability to listen. Now, with some sense that there is need for listening, we are not very good at it. There is an invitation to dialogue and a fear of it.

There has always been excellent reasons why the institution must be safeguarded. But history shows that there can be great variations in the operation of institutions, in the level of their illness or their health. Contemplating the human reality brings it home to us that it is the impeccably right objectives, the noble aspirations, the holy designs, that most need scrutiny if the desire for the good and the holy is not to be inhabited by an unholy spirit. It is the best of intentions that end in being pressed into service of a different kingdom, of the kind of exercise of power which Christ abhorred.


Has the Church been grieving for its loss of power when we should properly be grieving for the loss of holiness?

The loss of power will turn out to have been a blessing. We will need to let go generously and freely and because it is closer to the mind of Christ. The Church needs publicly to renounce the kind of exercise of power which Christ abhorred. ‘Far from relying on any power of my own, I came among you in great fear and trembling – only a demonstration of the power of the Spirit.’ (1 Cor 2)

What we have not heard enough or clearly enough is the New Testament language of the Body.

The Body of Christ needs to acknowledge its own feelings of guilt, its sense of being soiled and shamed by what has been done by its members. When one of the members sins, the whole body is ill. When one of the members sins it is because we have been sinful. When one of the members is in pain, the whole body suffers.

We do not fulfil all justice when we repent as individuals. That we must do, certainly. But what has happened in the Church in Ireland is a God-given opportunity to experience a Catholic insight (important in the tradition, but now dimmed): We do not sin alone; we do not suffer alone; we do not welcome grace alone. For 800 years in the Church has hammered in an individualist morality. That has been true and useful – up to a point. But it has weakened our sense of belonging to each other.

We may not scapegoat any sinner who belongs to us. We know in our bones that we may not throw the first stone. That is because we know our capacity to do the same things, our complicity, our private sins that have not been broadcast, our solidarity in weakness. It is Christ’s solidarity in our weakness. It is our solidarity in the whole Christ.

We need to be reconciled with ourselves. That is inseparable from being reconciled with each other. Then that healing may extend to all who suffer the same wound. The nation, never mind the Church, has been wounded. Then, perhaps, quietly, without a parade of street-corner tears, there would be the possibility of an authentic humility and a ring of truth in any public plea for forgiveness and healing with those who have been brutalised. 

(1) See Then Church and Child Sexual Abuse: Towards a Pastoral Response, edited by Eamonn Conway, Eamon Duffy and Attracta Shiels, 1999, Dublin, Columba Press. A chapter by Eamonn Conway appeared in The Furrow (September 1999). My reflections are greatly indebted to this chapter as also to ‘Conversation and Conversion’, by David Ranson (The Furrow, December 1999).

Reproduced from Doctrine & Life, Vol. 50 No. 5, May-June 2000, pp. 296-303
(c) Dominican Publications




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