Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 27 December 2014

'My faith helped me to stay sane after abuse'

The Pope's pastoral letter was a velvet sledgehammer - and its message came as a catastrophic own-goal for the Irish Catholic Church, argues Fr Patrick McCafferty

Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI

The recent pastoral letter of Pope Benedict XVI to Irish Catholics is without precedent. It addresses the reality of a tragic problem: the scandals of clerical sexual abuse and the massive failure of bishops to respond as true Christian leaders.

I would like to respond to the Holy Father's letter as a priest who is a survivor of abuse. I was badly hurt by sexual abuse when I was a young child. It was perpetrated by a babysitter and a local male. These persons had no connections with the Church.

Indeed, as a child and teenager, the local churches and parish communities of Whitehouse and Whiteabbey were places - as they should be for all young people - where I felt safe and valued.

The priests whom I knew as a child were mainly good, holy and selfless men, whose lives and example helped inspire my own vocation to the priesthood.

Sadly, however, in the first few years of my preparation and studies for the priesthood, I had a series of disturbing encounters with one priest and further deep wounds were inflicted on me by his sexual abuse. His acts plunged me into very deep spiritual and psychological sufferings.

It was a battle to maintain my faith and sanity and, yet, I persevered through these trials. Eventually, the abuse ceased and the abuser faded out of my life, leaving behind severe damage in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder, from which the struggle for me to recover continues.

I was blessed to have a strong faith in God and deep love for God from an early age. It helped me realise that the evil actions I had encountered were against God's will. Familiarity with the Scriptures helped too. Our Lord's parable of the weeds among the wheat comes to mind (Matthew 13: 36-43).

Other victims of clerical abuse, however, are robbed of their faith as well as their innocence. They often describe a sensation of having been 'abused by God'.

One survivor cannot bear to hear the Lord's Prayer because the priest who raped him when he was 10-years-old kept repeating 'Thy will be done' throughout the ordeal.

Pope Benedict has recognised as "understandable" how hard it is for survivors "to forgive or be reconciled with the Church".

He acknowledges their spiritual pain: "I know some of you find it difficult even to enter the doors of a church after all that has occurred." But he asks us not to lose hope in the healing power of God's love. He assures victims of "Christ's infinite love for each one of you."

Some survivors, nevertheless, remain very dissatisfied, angry and unhappy with the Pope's letter. This, too, is very understandable.

Pope Benedict told the Irish bishops at the end of their visit to Rome in October 2006, that "the wounds caused by such acts run deep". Consequently, healing will be slow and painstaking. Trust needs to be rebuilt, in many cases, from scratch.

The pastoral letter of the Holy Father is just one, albeit significant, step. He did not - and could not - address every aspect of this very complex problem.

He has, I believe, all the same, brought a wise and kindly voice to this subject. His expression of sorrow to victims is heartfelt. He expresses readiness to meet with Irish victims. He sternly confronts priests and religious orders who have abused children and warns them of God's judgement. He urges them, "take responsibility for the sins you have committed".

At the same time, he reminds them - and all of us - that no human being is ever beyond the mercy of God. Pope Benedict severely criticises those Irish bishops and their predecessors who have been and are responsible for grievous failures in leadership. He allows them no excuse.

When one reads his words closely, it is clear bishops are being indicted for negligence, cover-up and dereliction of the pastoral mission entrusted to them by the Lord. The word of God, in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, pronounces the most severe sentences on such behaviour.

The Pope says such behaviour, along with the other factors "which have had such tragic consequences in the lives of victims and their families" requires "urgent action", for they "have obscured the light of the Gospel to a degree that not even centuries of persecution succeeded in doing". That is quite a 'velvet sledgehammer' from the Pope - and a catastrophic 'own goal' for the Irish Catholic Church.

There are no easy and fast solutions. We must continue to pay careful attention to victims' pain and needs.

There must be, as the Pope demands, "complete honesty and transparency" in all these matters from bishops. The whole family of the Church must work hard at healing and renewing the gravely dysfunctional relationships that have long underlain and given rise to these terrible sufferings.

As we do so, Pope Benedict invites us to pray with him that - together - our efforts will result in "an abundant harvest of grace for the deepening of the faith . . . the spiritual progress of Irish society and the growth of charity, justice, joy and peace within the whole human family".

Fr Patrick McCafferty is a priest based in Dublin. Originally from Belfast, he has been a victim of abuse and is writing his doctoral thesis on clerical sexual abuse and the theology of the Cross

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