What is the role of forgiveness in the church’s response to clergy sexual abuse? Why do some victims feel pressured to “forgive” and “move on” before they are ready? What does the church stand to gain — and what do they stand to lose – by putting forgiveness first?
For any faith community, these questions are important. For Christians, the questions can feel like a matter of spiritual life or death. Many Christians see forgiveness as the foundation of their religious faith. When Christians hear the words of Jesus – “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” and “If you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins” – they wonder whether failure to forgive will exclude them from God’s grace.
Forgiveness is never easy after a serious violation; it can take years of struggle and prayer. Yet in the case of clergy sexual abuse, the church often translates Jesus’ challenging ideal into a kind of cheap grace, for reasons that have nothing to do with the real grace of God. Offenders may seek forgiveness so they can avoid the consequences of their behavior. Bishops and other leaders may wish to forgive so they won’t have to punish a colleague who may have also become a friend. Congregants may try to forgive so they don’t have to think ill of a beloved minister. If a victim feels an urge to forgive, it may be out of misplaced loyalty to her offender, or she may hold the desperate hope that quick forgiveness will lead to quick healing. If the church causes further harm while responding to her complaint, she may try to forgive them out of the same sense of loyalty and desire for healing.
These “gains” – offenders escaping justice, church leaders and congregants ducking hard questions – can inflict a devastating toll on the church. The push for quick forgiveness puts the victim at further risk and may put other vulnerable people at risk as well. When congregational or denominational leaders attempt to suppress an uncomfortable truth, they deny the wounded congregation a chance to heal. Secrecy and innuendo can lead to widespread distrust among the congregation: distrust of clergy, lay leaders, fellow congregants, and especially the victim. As a result, the congregation may shrink in attendance, giving, and community influence. The next pastor to serve this damaged community will likely fail and may become collateral damage as well, sickened by the stress of serving a congregation whose wounds were never tended.
After an instance of clergy sexual abuse, a rush to forgiveness causes vastly more harm than good. This is why many victims of clergy sexual abuse think of “forgiveness” as the real “F word.”
If not in forgiveness, then how should the church respond to clergy sexual abuse? First by seeking truth, administering justice, and seeking healing for all parties. Only then are questions of forgiveness and reconciliation appropriate.
Seek the Truth
The church, through the bishop and/or investigative body, must begin by seeking truth. In response to the alleged victim’s complaint, the alleged offender has a duty to provide a truthful response. But what offender would willingly admit, even to themselves, a truth that could end their careers? In Trauma and Recovery, Dr. Judith Herman writes,
“In order to escape accountability for his crimes, the perpetrator does everything in his power to promote forgetting. Secrecy and silence are the perpetrator’s first line of defense. If secrecy fails, the perpetrator attacks the credibility of his victim. If he cannot silence her absolutely, he tries to make sure that no one listens. To this end, he marshals an impressive array of arguments, from the most blatant denial to the most sophisticated and elegant rationalization. After every atrocity one can expect to hear the same predictable apologies: it never happened; the victim lies; the victim exaggerates; the victim brought it on herself; and in any case it is time to forget the past and move on.”
To victims of clergy sexual abuse, these words describe a painfully familiar phenomenon. The church cannot simply take the accused minister at his or her word. They must vigorously and impartially investigate all reports of harmful behavior by clergy.
The congregation also needs the truth. In all circumstances, they need to know as soon as a complaint has been lodged against their minister, and as soon as the matter has been resolved. While the complaint is being investigated, the bishop should place the accused minister on administrative leave to prevent him from using the “same predictable apologies” to create an environment hostile to the complainant. It is rarely necessary to advise complainants to lie low; by this point, most are too traumatized to participate in congregational life.
For the alleged offender, justice is straightforward, albeit rarely easy. The governing documents for most denominations (for example, the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church) spell out a detailed process and an equally detailed range of consequences for offenders. If an investigation confirms the facts of the complaint, consequences may include temporary leave, loss of position, lost of ordination credentials, or even – depending on the laws where the offence took place – criminal proceedings.
For the victim, justice is less clearly defined. Church laws governing response to clergy sexual abuse typically focus on outcomes for the accused minister; the church seems to forget that holding the offender accountable is only half the job. Yet the victim needs justice too. In Is Nothing Sacred: The Story of a Pastor, the Women He Sexually Abused, and the Congregation He Nearly Destroyed, the Rev. Dr. Marie Fortune describes the process of justice-making from the victim’s perspective:
- Truth-telling: Church leaders must seek truth and share it in a timely manner with the congregation and any other stakeholders, in a way that protects the victim’s identity and privacy.
- Acknowledging the violation. If the investigation confirms that the minister has harmed someone in his or her care, the church must name it abuse and condemn it as wrong.
- Compassion. The church must listen empathetically to the victim. Since institutions can’t truly “listen” (only people can), the church should appoint a supportive individual to this role.
- Protecting the vulnerable. The church must take steps to prevent further harm to the victim and to protect other individuals who may be at risk of harm.
- Accountability. The church must confront the offender and impose sanctions impartially, regardless of the offender’s status in the church or community.
- Restitution. The church can share the burden of responsibility for what has happened by offering tangible restitution, such as payment for therapy. The church can affirm the victim’s importance in the congregation – which is one of her most critical needs – through acts of symbolic restitution, such as liturgies of healing or of congregational penitence.
- Vindication. The victim needs to be openly cleared from any sense of blame or shame for what was done to her. Since blaming and shaming of victims often originate in the congregation, vindication should also happen in this context.
Few church communities achieve perfect justice in the face of injustice. But if the victim can see a genuine effort on the part of the church, “approximate justice” may be enough to allow healing to begin.
Heal All Parties
To support victims as they heal, the church should make a conscientious effort to enact all of the elements of the justice-making process. Unfortunately, “paying for therapy” is often the beginning and end of the church’s offer of resources. While money is important, it falls far short of what the victim needs for healing. Among her greatest losses is the support of friends in her church community. The church must make efforts to reconcile these broken relationships.
The congregation will need support to process their pastor’s betrayal of trust. Whether the pastor stays or leaves, the congregation has sustained a wound. As reluctant as churchgoers may be to talk about what happened, these conversations are essential for restoring the congregation’s health. The church should identify – and pay for – the resources to help the congregation through this challenging process.
The offender and their family may need healing, but their needs should never take precedence over those of the primary and secondary victims, including the congregation.
Forgiveness: The Choice Belongs to the Victim
It can take years for a victim of clergy sexual abuse to come to terms with what was done to her, and even longer to understand what forgiveness would mean in the context of her experience. Each victim has a unique experience of violation as well as a unique life history, personality, set of relationships, and resources for healing. Each victim will have a unique path to recovery from the trauma of clergy sexual abuse. Whether, when, and how to forgive are decisions that belong entirely to the victim. Church leaders and congregants do not need to know whether the victim has forgiven her offender, and they have no right to suggest that she should.
A better question for the church to ask would be, “Can you forgive us?” Victims consistently report that the church’s response causes a great deal more damage than the original abuse. This includes institutional abuse (denial of harm, suppression of truth, etc.) as well as individual acts of unwelcome or unkindness. Although it is entirely the victim’s choice whether to forgive the church or not, church leaders nonetheless have a role to play in the process: to acknowledge harm done, offer amends, and express a hope for forgiveness.
Individual congregants, or the congregation as a whole, may attempt to forgive the offender and restore him to leadership. A robust congregational healing process can help them distinguish between forgiveness, which can coexist with justice, and denial, which stops justice in its tracks. Whether forgiven or not, offenders should never again have access to their target population. They should never be invited, in any capacity, back into the community in which they caused harm.
The Church Should Focus on Reconciliation
Instead of focusing on forgiveness, the church should put its efforts into reconciliation – not between victim and offender, but between the victim and her church community. Clergy sexual abuse throws victims into a crisis that many describe as the most painful and frightening experience of their lives. Yet in their hour of greatest need, victims almost universally suffer a violent loss of support from their church communities. Isolation and ostracism are the rule, not the exception. Most victims leave their congregations in the aftermath of reporting. Many leave church entirely; some lose their faith altogether. Yet years later, they still grieve the friendships they lost. Healing can never be complete for these victims; likewise, their departure leaves congregations incomplete.
The church has an opportunity to stop this tide of loss. By seeking truth, doing justice, allowing victims to forgive (or not) on their own terms, and repairing broken relationships between victims and congregations, the church can bring about healing. It won’t happen quickly, and it won’t be easy, but real grace is never quick or easy. Instead of cheap grace, the church must strive for a grace that is worthy of the God they claim to serve.