Clergy Abuse: Is Forgiveness Possible?

Yesterday’s lectionary reading was about forgiveness. That brings up the question: In cases of abuse by clergy, is forgiveness always possible or even desirable? Based on my own experiences with an abusive member of the clergy, I think the answer is mixed.

To be sure, forgiveness is always desirable. By forgiving the other person, the injured person frees himself to move on. He or she lets go of hurt and anger and moves toward healing. This outcome has very little to do with the person who caused the harm, but instead is all about protecting oneself against further pain and suffering.

When it comes to clergy abuse, however, the very nature of the relationship between clergy and laity makes the path to forgiveness arduous. Any betrayal of that trust by clergy — whether the abuse is spiritual, emotional, sexual, physical or relational — can have profound implications for the victim and his or her sense of self. In addition, the abuse inevitably implicates the victim’s spiritual and emotional lives, often resulting in lasting harm. Indeed, it is well documented that victims frequently suffer PTSD and other stress and anxiety disorders. (Spiritual abuse can be particularly devastating, for it typically is difficult for adjudicatories to recognize, and complaints may initially be ignored or dismissed out of hand. This compounds the suffering of victims. My strong suggestion to bishops, canons to the ordinary, and other church officials is to avoid dismissing complaints of clergy misconduct whenever possible.)

One precursor to forgiveness is timely access to justice. With church officials all too often reluctant to address clergy misconduct, victims may not only have to deal with the original harm, but also their own powerlessness as well. It’s also essential that adjudicatories believe victims; in cases of abuse, studies show that the overwhelming majority of complaints are truthful.

Further, the relationship between clergy and their congregations means that victims who tell their stories may be shunned and excluded at church–the very place they should be able to find comfort and healing. For example, one dear friend of mine, now in her eighties, recounts how she was shunned by members of her Episcopal parish for complaining about the rector’s attempts to ruin her marriage. It was not until years later, when it was discovered that dozens of other women had faced similar experiences, that members of her church apologized to her for their conduct. But by that time, the damage had been done, and many of the fractured relationships have never healed.

The story above also illustrates another important issue, which is the breadth of harm caused by abusive clergy. Not only does evidence suggest that the vast majority of clergy abuse go unreported, but in my experience the circle of harm often extends beyond the obvious victims. Even well-intentioned church officials may overlook or fail to fully recognize the vast swath of friends and family who are hurt when clergy misconduct occurs. This is particularly the case with spiritual and emotional abuse, in which initial reports often represent only the tip of the iceberg.

Another precursor to forgiveness is allowing victims the space to process abuse in their own way. Officials who urge victims to “move on,” risk trivializing the pain and suffering of victims. Similarly, it can be counterproductive to attempt to shut down public criticism of the offending clergy, for telling of one’s experience can be therapeutic. And criticizing victims for responding badly to misconduct, as happened recently in one prominent case of clergy abuse, is inevitably counterproductive. The reality is that victims often engage in counterproductive behavior, up to and including suicide. This is not a result of moral failing, but instead of human suffering.

Lastly, for forgiveness to occur, there must be care and support for victims. This may include professional counseling, medication, pastoral care, listening with compassion, and other support. Church officials also need to recognize that victims may spend months, even years, “wandering with intention,” absenting themselves from their church or house of worship. Some may transfer to other parishes, or leave church altogether. But in all these cases, it is incumbent upon church officials to continue to regard victims of abuse with love and concern. And unless someone asks to no longer be considered a church member, victims of abuse should be accorded the same rights and privileges as other church members. In short, being a victim of abuse constitutes good cause to withdraw from involvement in church, and should not be regarded as reflecting badly on victims.

And, of course, prayer is important for all affected by abuse, including abusers and their families.

In conclusion, in cases of clergy abuse, we can never really know whether forgiveness is possible. Nor should we assume that it is, or that we can dictate to survivors when or how they should forgive. We can only offer love, care, and support for those affected by the scourge of clergy abuse and trust that God will work through the situation in the end.

About Eric Bonetti

I’m a cradle Episcopalian, living in Northern Virginia. My interests include writing, policy, sports, cooking, volunteer work, good food and wine, and teaching kids’ cooking classes. I retired in 2017 and now just work for fun. I’m also a regular contributor to Episcopal Cafe, and have been published at HuffPo and other major sites and publications.

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One Response to Clergy Abuse: Is Forgiveness Possible?

  1. Mary Jo Campbell says:

    Rather than leave the church, I would like to see the victims of clergy abuse supported by the church. By that I mean we are all “the church”. Abuse victims need to know they will be safe. Attacks on them must be addressed quickly and firmly.
    Christ had a few things to say about the treatment and mistreatment of children.
    Christ had a few things to say about the abuse of others.
    Let’s take His words seriously.

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