No one who conceals transgressions will prosper, but one who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy. Proverbs 28:13, NRSV
Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. James 5:16, NRSV
Last week, Pope Emeritus Benedict XIV (who continues to live in the Vatican) published a letter regarding the cases of sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Church. In it, he takes a quite different approach to the matter than Pope Francis. Pope Francis in general has emphasized the very practical legal implication of sexual abuse and has publicly confessed the guilt of the church and its hierarchy. Benedict (who, under his birth name Joseph Ratzinger, started his career as a professor for Systematic Theology and, from 1981 until his election to be pope in 2005, was the head of the ‘Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’ – a successor body to the ‘Congregation of Holy Office’, which traditionally dealt with the Inquisition) in his letter took a doctrinal and moralistic approach to the subject.
Pope Emeritus Benedict sees the issue of sexual abuse within the church primarily in the light of the absence of God. Which, from a theological standpoint, is hard to argue with. However, Benedict goes on to hold ‘secularism’ responsible for sexual misconduct and crimes within the Roman Catholic Church, especially the sexual revolution of the 60s; according to him, this ‘secularism’ contributed greatly to the moral decay within the church. Sounds to me like Benedict sees the godlessness of the world creep into the church the way the serpent somehow made it into the Garden Eden in the very beginning, and especially in anything related to sexuality…
(More on the subject can be read here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/speaking-out-at-this-difficult-hour-a-once-quiet-ex-pope-pens-a-lengthy-letter-on-sexual-abuse/2019/04/11/0ffa162e-5c1a-11e9-a00e-050dc7b82693_story.html?utm_term=.2e98f0bee356.)
Now of course sexual abuse was an issue within the church long before the sexual revolution. Sexual abuse has to do with the exertion of power, be it physical, emotional, political, religious or structural power. Since the church became a power player in world history, there have always been those abusing their power. Needless to say, women and children always have been the prime victims of sexual abuse because of predominant power structures, inside and outside of the church.
And when I say ‘the church’, I am not just pointing fingers at the Roman Catholic Church – there has been well reported sexual misconduct and abuse in Protestant churches as well (which, more often than not, has been covered up or denied). Wherever we find power structures and systems of power, we will also find sexual abuse. It’s not a modern phenomenon, it has nothing to do with ‘secularism’, is has to do with what, in church language, we call ‘sin’ – and sin is so much more than moral decay or a temporary lapse of judgment. Sin, as Martin Luther defined it, is egocentrism that leads to the disregard of God and neighbor (‘being curved into ourselves’).
As a woman who has experienced sexual abuse (though not within the church), I am appalled by a mere moralistic view of sexual misconduct and abuse that seeks to blame some ‘other’ rather than to confess guilt and sin. It makes me downright angry. This is, in a sense, gaslighting – and so the abuse continues.
Again, I am not just angry at and disappointed in Pope Benedict. He is more of a symbolic figure for the way sexual misconduct and abuse is dealt with in pretty much all power systems (if it’s dealt with at all) – it’s not really our fault, there is always something – or someone – who should be blamed for it. Statements like ‘I am sorry that whatever I did made you feel that way’ make me sick, because they shift the focus from the perpetrator to the victim.
From early on, part of the tradition of the church was to confess sins, individually and as a broader body. With the confession of sins comes repentance – which is to discontinue in the old, errant and destructive ways.
It seems like we as church have to relearn to truly confess and repent – not just in a symbolic and inconsequential way, but to change our ways of handling (and mishandling) things. There can’t just be lip service to the ways we failed, but concrete gestures of penitence (another old-fashioned church-y word). Perpetrators of sexual misconduct and abuse ought to be prosecuted and removed from office (and, if applicable, undergo psychological treatment). There has to be some form of retribution of those who were victimized. Most of all, those need to hear: it wasn’t your fault, never. I am / we are the guilty ones, and I am / we are sorry. We do everything in our power to not let it happen again.
True change starts with the recognition of guilt and confession. Blaming others won’t change a thing.
Kyrie, eleison – God, have mercy!
Picture by Volkan Olmez on unsplash.com
This post is also available in: German