Should the Catholic Church be forgiven for its child abuse?

As Christians it is tough having to watch the most visible and influential representation of Christ’s church on Earth bring such public disgrace on itself, on its people, and on Christ himself through its systemic problem of child abuse. These are our fellow Christians too, and here they are stuck in a desperate situation where they are damned if they don’t stop the abuse, but just as damned if they do try to stop it, because that would be admitting the Church is terribly fallible and even criminal in its actions.

So our brothers and sisters carry a heavy burden. They know they have God’s unlimited mercy and forgiveness, but they also know from their own Catholic teachings that there’s no pardon without repentance. And repentance means turning away from sin through faith in Christ. This is what God sent Jesus for, “to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways,” Acts 3:26.

The Catholic Church has done an enormous amount of good in this world, so is God now offering the Church itself a great blessing, by zeroing in on what has been hurting its effectiveness? Child abuse obviously qualifies as “a wicked way,” so in bringing it to the surface where it cannot be denied or covered up any longer, a great blessing awaits the Church if it truly repents by asking and trusting Christ to deal with the abuse his way.

And that may mean a huge black eye for the Church hierarchy, but that might bring an end to the other systemic problem in the Catholic Church, the idea that eternal salvation only comes through being members of the Catholic Church. So two birds could be killed with one stone here, that through open confession of criminal abuse, and trust in Christ to deal with the problem no matter what the fallout, the Catholic Church could then join the rest of us fallible, sinning Christians as brothers and sisters who don’t mind admitting our frailty and fallibility, and our need every day for Christ’s forgiveness, mercy and his great gift of repentance.

To ask the question, then, “Should the Catholic Church be forgiven for its child abuse?” I hope the answer given by Catholics themselves is, “No, the Church should not be forgiven UNTIL it repents, meaning we Catholics should all – from the Pope on down – openly state that we are trusting in Christ to clean us up completely, because the blessing that results in our Church will show the world that this is what God sent Christ to every hurting, fallible, sinning, abusive person for.” And what a witness to Christ that would be.  

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“If you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven”

Right after Jesus “breathed” on his disciples in John 20:22 and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” he immediately launched into verse 23, “If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” So are the giving of the Holy Spirit and forgiveness connected?

Well, we know from Acts 1:8 that the purpose of the Holy Spirit was to give the disciples power to be Jesus’ witnesses. Jesus had already defined what that witness was too, in John 3:16, that “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life,” and verse 18, that “Whoever believes in him is not condemned.” But he also said in verse 18, “but whoever does not believe stands condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”

To tell people they “stand condemned already” is also part of the witness that the Holy Spirit was given to the disciples for. And the reason people stand condemned already is verse 36, that “whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.” God’s wrath remains on a person, therefore, until he, or she, “believes in the Son.” Or, as Jesus told his disciples in John 20:23, go tell these people that until they believe in him “they are not forgiven.”

We see Jesus himself saying this to people in Matthew 23:33, when he yells at the Pharisees, “You snakes and brood of vipers; how will you escape being condemned to hell?” He then predicts nasty things happening to the Pharisees because they were “not willing” to listen to those whom God sent to them, including, of course, Jesus himself. So Jesus tells them in verses 38-39, that “your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.'”

In other words, Pharisees, you can go through hell first, and you stand condemned already to stay in hell too, with God’s wrath remaining on you and no forgiveness “UNTIL” you’re ready to listen to and believe those whom God sent to you – or as Jesus phrased it in John 3, until you believe “in the name of God’s one and only Son.”

Those were tough words, and they led to Jesus being killed too. No wonder, then, Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit on his disciples, because they’d be called upon to say the same words and face the wrath of people’s response just as Jesus had to.

Why should I forgive?

A girl who’d been sexually abused by her uncle said later, “I forgive him for what he did to me.” Likewise a husband and father who forgave a drunk driver for killing his wife and children. And likewise again a church congregation that forgave a man who shot their pastor and several others at church. And when a man drove his truck over my newly landscaped garden I forgave him, but all he said was, “I didn’t do it on purpose,” and off he drove with no apology or offer to restore or pay for the damage. In none of these cases did the perpetrator of the damage or the killings show any remorse in response to forgiveness.

So why forgive them? And why did I forgive the truck driver too? Because God forgave me first, right? Or is it the other way round in Matthew 6:14, that if I forgive first then God forgives me? Either way, God’s forgiveness of me is attached directly to my forgiving others. But isn’t my forgiveness of others a bit pointless if they’re not sorry for the damage and hurt they’ve caused? Or worse still, isn’t it a bit risky forgiving people if they “turn grace into license” (Jude 4) to carry on being abusive, stupid and careless?

But in God’s dealings with us, isn’t it his forgiveness for all our ignorant, stupid, hurtful, uncaring thoughts, words and actions that leads us to remorse, repentance, and the desire to change our behaviour? Yes. That’s what forgiveness when understood is supposed to do. As Paul wrote in Acts 17:30, “God overlooked our ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.” God, amazingly, can put aside all the hurt we’ve caused by our ignorance and stupidity and he forgives us for all of it – but – having forgiven us he now expects us to turn that amazing grace of his into remorse and change on our part.

So God doesn’t stop with forgiveness. That’s just the first step, because in verse 31 God also “set a day when he will judge the world with justice.” So God forgives, yes, but he also makes sure justice will be done for those who’ve been hurt by the stupid, ignorant, uncaring words and actions of others. It’s a clear reminder that God expects us to stop causing any more hurt by our ignorance and stupidity.

So why should I forgive? Because it’s the first essential step to creating change in a person. It may not happen immediately, but God can use my forgiveness to reach that person at any time, with a clear reminder that forgiveness is given to create repentance.

Is forgiveness really that important?

in Luke 24:47, Jesus tells his disciples “forgiveness of sins must be preached among all the nations.” Jesus wants the whole world woken up to God’s forgiveness through his disciples relentlessly preaching the message of forgiveness publicly.

Jesus goes one step further, though, because in John 20:22-23 Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit on his disciples and tells them, “If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” Jesus wants his disciples forgiving people personally too, so that people learn about God’s forgiveness through our forgiveness, and they get to experience what being forgiven is like too.

If I don’t forgive a person on the other hand, he won’t learn about God’s forgiveness, and he won’t get to experience what being forgiven is like. So my forgiving someone personally – and letting the whole world know about forgiveness publicly – are hugely important to Jesus in showing people that their sins truly are forgiven. And that’s why he breathed the Holy Spirit on his disciples, to enable us to preach forgiveness publicly and to practice it privately.

And why is that important? Because if people don’t believe their sins are forgiven they’re stuck with all the mental and emotional damage their unforgiven shame, regrets and guilt are doing to them.

The one gigantic wall holding people back from knowing God loves them – and being able to love him in return – is their guilt, because (as one author asked), “What do you do about the things you did yesterday that you are sorry for? What do you do about that sharp word, that loveless deed, that selfish attitude, that malicious lie you told? These things stack up in our lives and build a residue of guilt that haunts us from the subconscious. How do you relieve this guilt? Here is the good news: There is forgiveness of sins. Every morning, every day, a dozen times a day you can claim again this wonderful sense of the forgiveness of sin, because ‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness,’ 1 John 1:9.”

Our great cry as Christians to the world is, “Your sins are forgiven,” and not to hold back on preaching it publicly and practicing it privately, because we know what being unforgiven feels like. Without forgiveness the mess in our heads continues to haunt us, causing us all sorts of stress and anguish, and even serious mental illness, NONE of which is necessary because “every one who believes in Jesus receives forgiveness of sins through his name,” Acts 10:43.

So, yes, forgiveness really is that important.

“You’re forgiven, you’re forgiven”

I wonder how many kids grow up in homes (and schools) where they’re constantly yelled at and punished for making mistakes. I wonder how it affects them in later life too.

I know how it affected me, because much of my childhood was spent in a British Boarding school and I have vivid memories of how I was treated. I remember being locked in a room for bad behaviour and being left in total isolation, and many times being hauled out of bed at midnight to stand outside in the corridor, shivering with cold for hours. And during my teenage years I was constantly being punished, the punishment sometimes extending for weeks.

I learnt that the only way adults could deal with my lapses and stupidity was by punishment. They weren’t the least bit interested in my apologies or explanations for my behaviour, and there was never a hint of forgiveness. The only time I remember an adult even mildly accepting my apology and reason for my behaviour, the punishment was meted out anyway. So I assumed that even if I was forgiven I’d still be punished.

Not surprisingly then, when I became a Dad, I thought this was the way I should deal with my own children. I based my relationship with them on their behaviour. I didn’t forgive easily, if at all, until I realized how God operates. It was an eye-opener. All I could hear from God’s word was, “You’re forgiven, you’re forgiven.” Every stupid mistake I’d made, every lousy action I’d done, every rotten mood I’d ever been in, all of them had been erased by Christ’s death and wiped from God’s memory forever, Hebrews 8:12.

Years of guilt and self-loathing evaporated in seconds. My head was clear of it. It was so freeing that when I heard a crash in the kitchen and found my granddaughter cowering in the corner, crying her eyes out because she’d broken one of our dishes, I knew exactly what to do. I grabbed her by the shoulders and I yelled at her, “You’re forgiven, you’re forgiven.”

The effect was electric. She looked up at me, stopped crying, and said, “OK,” and off she went as happy as can be. It was amazing. I’d never experienced the power of forgiveness on someone else like that before. Her mind was completely cleared of all guilt and self-loathing and off she scampered as if the incident had never happened.

“Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven,” Jesus said in Matthew 9:2 – or – “Cheer up, kiddo, it’s already forgotten.” Imagine growing up in a home (and a school, and a church) like that.

The power of love

What do you do about a teenager who has no ambition, skips school, doesn’t want to earn money, has few friends and plays video games all day? What hope is there for a kid like that?

Life, however, contains a wonderful secret, that people, including teenagers, make amazing changes when they know someone cares.

It was my history teacher who cared for me when my behaviour deteriorated rapidly after my parents split up. He pushed me to excel in athletics, took me to task if I slacked off, and he praised me far more than I deserved when I did well. For the rest of that year I held steady because of him. Without his care in later years, however, my behaviour took another downturn, and at age 16 I was expelled.

For years I floundered around until, one day, I discovered that Jesus died on the Cross knowing full well what I was like. He loved me “while I was yet a sinner,” the Bible said. I was loved, not based on my behaviour, but simply because I existed.

I wish a teenager I met recently knew that too. We met by chance when he stepped off the curb in front of my car and walked across the road so slowly I had to slam on the brakes to avoid hitting him. He didn’t change his pace, however. He was teenage at its worst: sullen, insolent and uncaring. I wanted to yell at him.

But I’d just read a book about High School kids whose lives took a huge turn for the better when teachers and parents stopped yelling at them and started caring for them instead. The evidence in the book was overwhelming that simply taking an interest in a teenager can start an amazing ball rolling.

Perhaps that’s why teenagers act up so much; it’s to see if their parents and teachers only value them if they’re behaving and doing well, or are they loved as teenagers even at their worst? But that’s when the shock value of not treating a child as he deserves has its greatest effect. It’s when the child knows full well his behaviour is lacking but he’s still loved anyway.

There’s a powerful force at work here. Looking back, then, I wish I’d asked the boy I nearly ran over, “Are you OK?” – because, poor kid, he isn’t OK, he’s a mess. A small expression of concern may have had a huge impact on him, or at least got the ball rolling in the right direction. Who knows? But I do know that even hopeless cases can change when they know someone cares – because I was one.

The damage done to relationships by expectations

Why do so many marriages end in divorce? One common factor is that couples enter marriage with high expectations, and when expectations aren’t met, that’s when the relationship starts to crumble.

In one marriage, for instance, the wife expected her husband to provide her with a better life than she had as a child. In another the husband expected his wife to be sexy at all times. When those expectations weren’t met, the wife punished her husband by refusing sex, and the husband punished his wife by comparing her to other women.

And think of the damage done to children too, by the high expectations of their parents and teachers. At Graduation, for instance, it’s clear to anyone watching that the awards and the loudest applause are given to the top students in academics, sports and community service. Engrained into every child’s head by age eighteen, therefore, is the clear message that your value as a person is directly connected to how well you do.

So where does this nonsense come from? It comes from a culture of magazines and talk shows that bully us into thinking we’re never quite good enough in what we look like, or how we eat, think, play and live. The expectations they put on us are enormous, and the standards they set are unattainable by ordinary mortals, but we expect our mates and children to live up to them anyway because, we’ve been led to believe, only the brightest and the best are truly happy.

Is it any surprise, then, that young people are depressed, many of them to the point of wanting to end it all, because the pressure to be perfect by parents, teachers, coaches and peers is overwhelming? And is it any surprise that forty per cent of marriages collapse, because neither partner feels valued for who they simply are?

But what if a child or a mate knows they’re loved no matter what?

I love the story of one married couple that proved you could ignore cultural pressure and still be happy. They played in bridge tournaments as partners. At one major tournament the wife made a stupid mistake in the first round and blew the game for them, but they were so at ease in their relationship together that they went on to win the tournament despite the rocky start.

The secret? Neither of them based their relationship on never making mistakes. So even if they’d lost the tournament they could still drive home happily together. No angry blaming, no stony silence, no demand for apologies, and no damage done to their relationship because of expectations not met.