A response to Fra Bernard-Marie, a secular Franciscan who has argued that victims of sexual abuse need to forgive their abusers and get on with their lives
The testimony of this brother, which was recently published in La Croix, bothers me – and not just a little. He wrote and published the article to promote his personal decision.
When he says "it is undoubtedly this attitude, both just and merciful, that we should adopt towards our guilty brothers and sisters", he is indirectly passing an unsympathetic judgment on the victims who denounce and fight against their predator, in spite of all his precautions. In the final analysis, are their struggles neither just nor merciful?
In response to this article, which I believe is symptomatic of the confusion that is often seen in Catholic circles on this subject, I would like to share four conclusions that I have reached after thirteen years of activism in this area.
"We do not kill, we do not rape"
First of all, a priest who rapes a child has not had "a little weakness" or "a lapse" in his life as a cleric. Certainly, we all have crazy and sometimes shameful desires that cross our minds. But, fortunately, we do not act on them because we have a safeguard, a principle inscribed in the depths of our conscience that regulates all our moral action: respect for others.We do not kill, we do not rape, we do not steal. It is like an imperative that imposes itself on us, in an indisputable way: "Never do that!" Just because someone fantasizes about impaling his boss and cooking him over a small fire, doesn't mean he'll carry out this morbid fantasy. That's because, between the delusions of the imagination and what we actually do, there is this intangible principle that regulates our moral action.
Certainly, there are examples in history of people who have led a bad life, become aware of their faults, repented and then became hermits, monks, priests, and so forth. But when it is a question of sexual predators who are already priests, the problem is much more complicated: we are talking about men who are supposed to be wise, who have made the radical choice to leave everything to follow the call of Christ, who have done years of study, who are supposed to have a life of prayer, who have read and meditated on the Scriptures, who have the support of the sacraments...
The barbarity of their acts shows that all their years of religious, biblical, philosophical formation, etc., have finally served no purpose, since they do not even know how to respect the foundation of all morality: they do not know how to respect their neighbor, especially with regard to the smallest and most fragile.
Exclusion from the Christian community
Secondly, if a priest has committed rape, he has committed a barbaric act. He no longer has any place in the priesthood... because he no longer has any place in the Christian community. And I would even add that he has no place in the human community at all, and should end his days in prison.
This is the reason why most of the victims are not waiting for compensation, but for their abuser to be returned to the lay state (by the way, a priest is not "reduced" to the lay state, he is "returned", the error comes from a bad translation of the Latin verb reducere).
And I would add that the penalty of returning to the lay state is, in my humble opinion, far too lenient. Outright exclusion from the Christian community should be the norm for these crimes (with the possibility of reintegration into the Christian community spread over ten or twenty years, and conditioned on acts of justice and repentance, but certainly not a return to the priesthood).
Acting for the goodPretending to act for the good, one actually commits an even greater evil when, in the name of misplaced charity, one pretends to renounce demanding justice... because one deprives the predator of an opportunity to save his or her soul. Human justice, as hard as it may be, sometimes helps perpetrators become aware of the gravity of their crimes and repent. To offer the predator a chance to repent and thus escape eternal torment may even be what it means to "love one's enemies".
Thirdly, forgiveness is very often used by Church authorities to force victims to remain silent. I am speaking with full knowledge of the facts. How many times after I alerted bishops about the danger of a priest or a community was I told: "Now you must forgive", "You should turn the page!" Reacting in such a way is to participate in this perverse mechanism that consists of turning the accusation on the victim. The problem is not that a predator is still active in the priesthood... but that the victims are complaining!
Hush up the scandal
Finally, the fourth and last point, I would like to add that a community that effectively combats predators sets an example to the world of a consistent and secure institution. Who would entrust their children to a community that would be ambiguous on these issues? In the end, the most serious and shocking aspect of all these cases of abuse in the Church is not that priests have been guilty of sexual abuse, but that bishops have acted against the victims, have blindly protected sexual abusers. And sometimes by even lying to the victims!
Today, the Catholic Church has lost all credibility. Not because of the sexual abusers, but because of those who protected them, first and foremost the leaders of the Church: bishops, cardinals, and popes. The message that the Church has sent to the world is that "our image comes before the protection of victims." This has provoked anger and bewilderment.
When a priest abuses a child, the most important thing is to hush up the scandal, not to deal with the problem, arrest the culprit and protect the victims. It's like a driver who hits a pedestrian. Instead of helping the victim, he rushes to make sure his car didn't get damaged in the accident. This is the absolute counter-witness.
Xavier Léger is a former member of the Legionaries of Christ and now a "whistleblower" on the phenomena of sexual, psychological and spiritual abuse in religious circles.