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The Risky Business of Atonement, Litigation and Healing

The Church entered the COVID-19 pandemic in a wounded state from revelations of the clergy sexual abuse crisis and new awareness of the harms of colonialism and residential school abuse of Indigenous persons, sexism and racism in the Church itself. The grand narrative of the Church as a place of justice and care for the vulnerable is now a grand fiction for many. While leadership bears a particular responsibility, all in the Church have a duty of atonement for these harms. Church leadership response to clergy sexual abuse has been marked by silence, denial and cover up, protection of image and minimization of the harms. As a pediatrician, I have held a sodomized twelve-year-old boy bleeding from the rectum and tried to comfort a five-year-old girl who was raped. The harms to them early in their development cry out for atonement.

Atonement here requires apology and repentance, care for victims, policies and protocols for response to allegations and protective safeguarding initiatives, education into the harms of profound, often life-long harms of abuse in childhood with particular attention to the devastated spiritual consequences when the offender is a representative of Christ and the need to address underlying issues for long-term prevention.

As we’ve seen from media moguls and bank executives, apology can be no more than politically correct risk management. Meaningful apologies require explicit acceptance of responsibility for wrongdoing, regret for the harm, identification with those harmed and corrective action. Diocesan days of atonement have occurred in many places but a culture of atonement remains elusive.

Financial settlements with ‘gag orders’ have been an element of response. In the U.S., where suing is a national pastime, and Canada alone, billions of dollars have been paid out. These settlements are risky business for both Church and victims. For the Church, they can appear to be buying off victims without real remorse and promote the belief that the Church has limitless wealth. Victims can be re-victimized or liberated. We have learned to our peril that money does not bring healing and risks the anger of many in the Church who blame greedy victims for the closure of parishes and bankruptcy of dioceses. This creates a unique Church version of rape shaming rather than a community of compassion and support. Legal retributive justice focuses on blame so its adversarial nature can traumatize all without any sense of justice or reparation. We must understand the reasons victim-survivors risk initiating legal processes so we can create new practices capable of promoting justice and healing.

Adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse have a history of not being heard or believed, and even punished, for their ‘allegations.’ Because disclosures of clergy sexual abuse are made long after the events and there have been few criminal convictions, victim-survivors feel betrayed by the justice system. They seek to take back control of their damaged lives but must assess their ability to withstand the process and its risks. Criminal law is about a crime, a state-controlled trial and a punishment. Victims have concerns regarding the need for evidence and difficulties in accessing memories of the abuse from the natural fading of memory and protective avoidance. Civil law focuses on the wrong, a tort, and its damage where the injured party controls the process.

Some pursue these legal processes to confirm the truth about events so horrible, victims themselves can’t believe it. Conditioned to believe in the holiness of the priest they think they are crazy. Here, lawyers listen, re-assign blame from victim to the defendant and reveal the multiple parties responsible. However, lawyers trolling for participants in class action suits can promote the monetization of the harms over healing.

Some pursue litigation to support other survivors. Others want to make the larger community aware of the wrongs and hypocrisy of the Church and make the Church atone. However, research shows that the goals of litigation for most survivors are support for care, accountability for the harm done, future prevention and the possibilities for transformation of damaged family relationships and personal redemption.

Moved by Jesus’ ministry of healing and reconciliation, we need to develop the ethic and practice of restorative justice. It is an approach to criminal, civil and church law violations that addresses all aspects of offences in one process. For the Church, it helps acknowledge and restore the lost childhood of victims, make meaningful atonement and restore faith in the Church as a place of justice and care as well as trust in our loving and forgiving God.

Restorative mediation is a voluntary, private process controlled by the parties so all can be responsible for healing. A victim advocate may provide support. Lawyers may be present. There is careful review of the evidence. The process begins with the moral accountability of the offender and of the Church in a face-to-face meeting where experience is shared. This allows real compassion what is a “suffering with” the other. The spiritual harms in clergy abuse can be taken into account as we address underlying beliefs and practices for long-term prevention.

Sister Nuala Kenny, emerita professor at Dalhousie University, Halifax, N.S., is a pediatrician and physician ethicist.


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Thank you for this article written from the perspective of a pediatrician involved in the physical and emotional healing of children whose bodies and lives have been shattered by sexual abuse. When the abuse has been perpetrated by a spiritual leader then a loss of trust in the spiritual aspects of their lives occurs. A tragedy of immeasurable proportion. Restorative mediation is the process which has the best chance of bringing healing to a wounded church and, most importantly, to wounded souls. The church cannot claim to have made progress in dealing with the sexual abuse of minors unless restorative mediation is a vital part of the healing process.

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