Priests are supposed to be leaders; spiritual guides and prophets. I feel like the prophets of old when they claim not to know how to speak. I am called to proclaim the truth and be prophetic in the light of injustice and oppression but on this occasion I only know that not to speak is no longer an option. And yet to say something as if I know what to say might just offend further. My initial response is to say I don’t know what to say or how to say it.
As a priest, I am part of the institutionalised structure in which clerical abuse has been able to live and grow unstopped even by those trying to help. I have to come to realise that the culture of clericalism is responsible for the ongoing tragedy that has left the vulnerable unprotected and unhealed by a leadership too willing to be hoodwinked by the doctrine of a priesthood that places priests above other human beings and what they call “the good of the church” above destruction of lives. I have come to see that the need to maintain power and control left the vulnerable without a voice – unsupported by the very people who claim gospel authority. For this I am sorry.
I have recently had to admit to myself that my failure to speak clearly about this tragic injustice has been because I am confused about what to say and how to say it. I am somehow caught in the system and I am afraid I will sound phoney and defensive – adding to the problem rather than advancing the healing. It is difficult and confusing – but this is no excuse to stay silent.
Church spokespeople have all too often tried to make sense of the role of the church and its representatives in this crisis only to appear defensive and thus insult those who have been abused because the church and its “good name” remain privileged in the discourse rather than allowing the pain and despair of the victims to be heard and respected and honoured, as it must be, if justice is to be done. If there is to be healing we must be clear that honesty and justice must come first. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commissions may not be perfect but they have succeeded far beyond the church’s efforts which many victims see as defensive and in the church’s interests first. This is one thing that must change.
What is missing for many victims abused in the church is any form of dialogue that might privilege the victim’s stories. Yet this is the first step in healing and reconciliation. Why is this? I think it is because church representatives are still trying to address this tragic abuse from a position of power – that is to say, maintaining its distance from the problem by the insistence on institutional innocence. I think it’s time to be more real and recognise that it is primarily an institutional failure: a failure to recognise that unfettered clerical power created a climate in which on-going abuse could go on unabated; a failure to recognise the victim’s plight; a failure to speak up on behalf of the victims and a failure to act in defence of the victim rather than the institution.
The defensiveness of church leaders continues to trivialise the woundedness of the victims. Their space often seems to have been taken over by a communal outpouring of a shared grief and loss as if the victim’s loss can somehow be subsumed into everyone else’s. That shared space must now give way to privilege a space for the victims and their woundedness.
I recently spoke with a woman who found the touch of a work colleague uncomfortable. She said, “It’s not sexual abuse – I just don’t feel comfortable when he does that.” I reminded her it was sexual abuse. Maybe she did not feel in danger of being molested or sexually interfered with, but it is sexual – every touch and word comes from who we are and we are sexual beings. We are responsible for how we interact with others, making sure our words and actions are not over-reaching into an other’s personal space. This is especially true amongst the young and vulnerable – those who are unsure about themselves or who are still searching out the meaning of their identity in the world. We are all responsible for this safety everywhere in the world, but especially in church settings where an offensive word or action may leave people whose space has been invaded turning away from themselves, the church and God.
If we are to privilege the victims, the last word must be that of a victim, and so may I read a poem by a victim and survivor of clerical sexual abuse, written for this weekend.
No More Secrets
No Hidden secrets: one, facelessly Breaking Silence
on ‘wrong’ touch (AND word/s).
About & for ALL Children of God especially young & vulnerable.
One, given just that much voice, saying otherwise
cannot now, know, offer or receive love.
One of us one of you. One abused. A call, “SPEAK OUT” …
loudly, NOW….. on “wrong touch AND word/s”.
Proclaim, loudly right word & touch.
Can’t express? Love? No time? No energy? No Value?
No … voice? Don’t touch? Too much ‘risk’? Can’t touch,
too many broken pieces!
Too broken, now?! Lifeless?
RIGHT LOUD LOVE WILL FILL the spaces.
This can be a time to notice continually, choices in words touch & Love.
Daring to care, enough. (Then, of the next day of remembering?)
For me, it is to now facelessly break-in to my own, silence.
This, although we have so frequently shared.
This year, season or week or simply this day
we can know closeness and love,
be active witnesses to it and bannish silencing & silence.
Silence, bullying & silencing, clearly the fertile ground for abuse.
Inappropriate touch or word
the sexualising of unequal or professional/pastoral
or family or therapeutic relating or relationships.
Fertile ground for abuse to occur & grow … into local culture/s.
Do we approach & question & put & name
Truth, Light & Love where shadows cannot, can NO LONGER, EXIST?
OUR Love, light & voices (here, locally); precious,
to be known, seen, heard, and guarded. Love, touch, speech & closeness never to be hidden but proclaiming & loudly (?) Proclaiming.
& so, yes, loudly we ALL CAN cry out & yell,
naming ALL that does not seem or feel right or true or fair or loving.
NO MORE … hidden. No more in secret.