We who have not been driven to turn our backs on the Church because of the scandal of sexual abuse know that, despite the evil done under the cloak of holiness, the Church remains the guardian of hope in our lives. As Jesus died on the cross, his body sullied by spittle, bruised, ripped and wracked by beating, scourging and nails, his dried blood encrusting his body, yet he remained inviolate and pure. And we draw comfort that, despite the pollution and depravity wreaked on the Church, the Body of Christ, by sexual predators on the weak and the vulnerable, yet it is constantly being purified by the blood Jesus shed for us on the cross. So we turn instinctively to God and to his Church in all our needs, knowing that, whatever befalls us, God will be there to help us, through our prayer, through the Sacraments, and through the ministrations of clergy and others.
For many victims of sexual abuse within the Church there is little or no such source of help in their grief and pain, no comfort or consolation, because the Church, or many of those within it, have not just let them down, but, in effect, blocked their way to God. In our prayer service for victims last Tuesday we used words written by victims themselves and one of those who had suffered had cried: ‘All has been taken from me… …The life of who I could have been is forever gone. My childhood stolen from me, forever altered. All hope, trust, and faith are gone. What is there to do but lie and wait, but wait for what? … My grief will never be gone. The pain is forever. This is my reality, one that was thrust upon me, one that even in death I must carry.’
Time and again, the further lament from victims is that many others within the Church – not just abusers and those shielding them – have heaped yet more shame and pain on them by branding them as liars, denouncing them as compensation-hunters and treating them as pariahs. Others just do their best to ignore what had happened to the victims and to marginalise them: anything to avert their minds from the fact that this appalling evil occurred in Our Church. But sexual abuse did happen. Lives were wrecked. Many victims are incapable of anything like a normal life. And some have taken their own lives because they saw nothing before them but a living death. As another victim said: ‘Something died in me the day my innocence was taken from me. I am empty like an abandoned shell. A double murder… of the body and of the soul. Sometimes I wish that death would take away my emptiness. Plunged in the darkness, despair consumes me and I can’t imagine that I will ever see the light again.’
When he spoke recently to the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, the Holy Father not only demanded that the Church should continue to strengthen its procedures for rooting out abuse and cover-up, and for bringing to account perpetrators and those who protected them, but he also spoke about what the Church might yet do to help the very ones it had failed to protect in the past. And I was struck by the fact that he cited some words by the American writer and campaigner, Maya Angelou, who had herself been sexually abused when young: ‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’ Those are words that cut both ways. The perpetrators of sexual abuse and their co-conspirators brought the victims to despair and worse. But even while the Church must carry the guilt for what has been done, yet victims can often see that there are many in the Church who do not denounce or ignore them: ‘At times, I too have had a Simon compelled to assist me and help me carry my cross. Others have lifted the burden by reaching out, others by speaking the truth… …’Sometimes there is a chance meeting with someone who sits for a moment, looks at me and changes things for an instant… a Veronica who comes out of the crowd and makes a difference in my life.
We can all become Simons and Veronicas. I have heard from victims that an important part of trying to work their way through what has happened to them comes from knowing that there are other people who, even in a small way, are ready to try to share in some part of the pain that victims suffer, people who are ready to confront the truth about what has happened in the Church, who do not bury their heads in the sand to ignore the unending anguish of the abused. As one victim told me, ‘Knowing that people are praying for us is a great comfort.’ So even if we think we cannot do much, we can at least pray for those who suffer, because prayer can bring hope and, sometimes, healing. Here are words by one victim, reflecting on Jesus in the tomb, and that we said at the end of our prayer service: ‘I am reminded of the cocoon stage of the butterfly…those days of dark waiting before new life and new transformation emerges. I can’t skip this waiting period, as it is an important time of grieving and mourning for what died within me. Can there be death to new life with me? Can my tomb eventually become like a womb that gives birth to new life? Each time I hear a new voice speak out, each time a bishop listens and acts, each time a parish chooses to face this difficult issue with courage, each time the lies, deception and failures are acknowledged and the truth is declared…can the stone be rolled away and people rise from their tomb?’