The National Catholic Review
Forgiveness is not a tactic; it is a moral act based on a religious vision.

Last May the people of Boston were stunned, angered and depressed upon being informed about yet another case of alleged child sexual abuse by someone working for the churchindeed, about what prosecutors say could be the largest child molestation case in the history of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Parents everywhere felt a chill run down their spines when they heard the allegations against 28-year-old Christopher J. Reardon, the director of religious education at St. Agnes Parish in Middleton.

Many 12- and 14-year-old members of the parish have accused the youth minister of molesting them in his parish office, in his home and in a gym basement. Investigators turned up incriminating videotapes made from hidden cameras he planted in the rectory, an extensive list of the names of boys that included detailed descriptions of their genitalia, and reports of various forms of sexual exploitation. In what one hopes is a gross exaggeration, the local district attorney speculates that Mr. Reardon may have molested as many as 250 boys in Middleton and nearby communities.

All of us, perhaps parents most of all, shudder to think about what would be going through our minds if this happened in our communities. These allegations concern another in a series of crimes exploiting the trust of a parish community that involves perverse forms of sexual abuse. Assuming the defendant is guilty, there is little doubt that these victims have suffered, and will continue to suffer, in profound ways for years to come.

The disgust, resentment and visceral anger we feel when hearing about these crimes is natural. The pastor of St. Agnes, of course, also felt profound revulsion at these crimes, some of which took place on the premises for which he has personal responsibility. All the more remarkable, then, that the pastor, the Rev. Jon Martin, chose to preach the need to forgive to his congregation at Sunday Mass after the allegations become widely publicized.

The headline in The Boston Globe the next day was predictable: In Middleton, Call for Forgiveness Meets Anger. In fact, the pastor received a mixed, not a universally hostile, response. A few parishioners, and no doubt many non-parishioners, rejected the pastor’s claim that forgiveness ought to be extended to the alleged perpetrator. They felt that ruthless exploitationthe premeditated, meticulously planned and repeated sexual abuse of such young human beingsis unforgivable.

Forgiveness goes to the very heart of Christianity (even if it is not always in the hearts of Christians). We know that Jesus was scandalous in his willingness to forgive sinners (Mk. 2:5-10), that he never refused to forgive anyone, and that we, in turn, are supposed to forgive seventy times seven times (Mt. 18:22). The central Christian prayer suggests that it is not only of moral but even of religious significance: Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who trespass against us. Yet what is forgiveness?

Forgiveness does not mean that we are supposed to give tacit approval to hurtful behavior, or let bygones be bygones, or try to like the harmful person, or act as if nothing has happened, or forsake justice, or sympathize with the criminal instead of the victim. Since forgiveness requires (and allows) us to set aside resentment and to give up our grudges, it is not difficult to understand why it is so easy to confuse forgiving with simply forgetting. We deliberately choose to forget petty slights because they are not important enough to disrupt a friendship. Yet genuine Christian forgiveness is not a tactic for ameliorating social friction; it is a focused moral act based on a religious vision.

According to St. Thomas Aquinas, Christians are required to regard others with caritas, charity, the effective willing of the good of the other. This kind of love extends not only to nice people and our loved ones but even to those who have seriously harmed innocents. This is why, for example, the pope recently visited Rome’s oldest prison to celebrate Mass for incarcerated murderers, thieves, rapists and drug dealers.

To forgive in the Christian sense, then, means to make a twofold decision. Negatively, it means to renounce hatred and the desire to destroy; positively, it means to will what is morally good to one who has been harmful. To will what is good means what is morally good for the other, not pleasures and rewards. Certainly this includes the offender’s correction. It also means, religiously, that the other be brought back to God. Far from being cheap and easy, this more demanding form of forgiveness aims not only at a change of external behavior, which is often hard enough, but also, and more radically, a change of heart and mind. Whether it is attainable in all cases may be in doubt, but Christian forgiveness intends healing and transformation.

To forgive criminals includes wanting them to take responsibility for the terrible harm they have done to their victims. This includes confessing to the harmas reports indicate Reardon may already have donefeeling contrition for it, making an uncompromising commitment not to repeat it, accepting willingly a punishment appropriate to the crime. In some cases, as references to the jubilee year have indicated, forgiveness does indeed mean absolving another of a debt, but in other cases it requires appropriate payment. So forgiveness does not exclude limiting the criminal’s freedom either through incarceration or other means that prevent the repetition of such criminal behavior in the future. Christian love demands forgiveness, but it also demands making sure the criminal does not harm another person. Asking for forgiveness, conversely, may also include undertaking a commitment to making the most of a long term in prison. (This view of forgiveness also requires a system of criminal justice that is concerned for genuine rehabilitation, but that topic cannot be developed here.)

Child molestation, of course, is more complicated than some other crimes because of the psychopathology that often underlies it. One of the senior members of St. Agnes parish acknowledged this when he said that his fellow parishioners are starting to realize that Reardon is sick. This is not the first time that a church has suffered from the presence of this or other sicknesses of a sexual nature.

Critics worry that applying disease imagery to a sexual predator removes all accountabilityafter all, we don’t punish people for getting the flu. Yet human responsibility is a complex spectrum with subtle shades of gray, not a black-and-white, either you have it or you don’t, reality. Naïvely denying that the freedom of sick people is in any way compromised is just as unhelpful as is the fatalistic assumption that our actions are completely determined by our genes. Both extremes massively oversimplify human nature by ignoring the fact that we all experience limited degrees of freedom within constraining conditions. Describing someone as sick does not excuse or pardon the personit only acknowledges the depth of the disorder.

This is not to say that forgiveness is always completely attainable or that we can easily overcome the visceral power of anger by a simple act of the will. We are spiritual beings, Archbishop Desmund Tutu reminds us, but we are also psychological beings. Parents are well aware of the power of emotions when it comes to protecting children. The key ethical ingredient, however, is not how we would feel instinctively about someone who abused our child. Morality does not ask that we have our limbic systems surgically removed. Christian morality asks that we make the deliberate decision, or, really, the commitment to decide over and over again, to extend good will to one who has done evil.

It is thus one thing to admit realistically that in some cases the ethical ideal may be very difficult to achieve, and another to claim that we have no obligation whatsoever to accomplish it. Those who regard child molestation as unforgivable take the latter avenue.

To offer forgiveness in the face of so much human pain and anguish is, from a Christian standpoint, both required and heroic. It is required, in the most fundamental sense, because God loves all human beings, including even those whose acts are the most abominable. No human being is utterly beyond redemption.

We all seem to share an innate tendency to assume that forgiveness is granted selectively, only for light sins like petty theft, telling white lies and the like, and not for the truly evil crimes done out of malice or callous indifference to human suffering. We like to assume that our relatively mild immorality is forgivable, while that of child molesters cannot be forgiven because of the gravity of their evil. This reflects a special temptation we have to separate the righteous from the sinnersand to ensure that we belong to the former group.

Yet though motivated by self-flattery, this moral exceptionalism does signal the genuine insight that there is a difference between the kinds of harm we do to one another. The problem with this conventional moral sorting of us and them is not only the self-serving manner in which we rig it to make sure that we always end up on the side of goodness. It also errs, and much more seriously, in the way it ignores the universality of human dignity. From a Christian standpointand this is the most shocking claim of allGod affirms the worth of child molesters and other aggressors as much as that of Mother Teresa or Pope John Paul II. And because God affirms unconditionally the worth of every person, we have no right to forsake anyoneno matter how despicable his or her acts. The circle of God’s love, then, includes Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein and Augusto Pinochet.

From a common sense perspective, this message is, of course, absolutely outrageous; so we should not be surprised that it is negatively received on talk radio and in the media. But as the prophet Isaiah reminds us, God’s ways are not our ways. It is an interesting facet of human nature that we can denounce the message while also admiring the acts of its advocates, such as the late Cardinal John O’Connor’s concern for those dying of AIDS, Jean Vanier’s devotion to the mentally handicapped or Mother Teresa’s solicitude for the destitute and dying of Calcutta.

It is, admittedly, not particularly difficult to revere acts of compassion on behalf of those who suffer. Yet the same motivation underlies the Christian response of love to aggression, as in John Paul II’s forgiveness of his attempted assassin or the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s forgiveness of the man who accused him of sexual abuse or Nelson Mandela’s emerging from 27 years in prison with a message of peace and reconciliation. It is, of course, easier for all of us to appreciate noble moral ideals from afar than to apply them concretely, or even see their relevance, to our own lives.

We regard forgiveness as especially heroic when it has to overcome the powerful emotions we all feel when people we love and want to protect have been gravely hurt. Anger, properly channeled, can even be a good thing when it drives us to work for justice. Yet anger as a spontaneous emotion has to be distinguished from hatred, which is a series of choices that eventually become a settled will to destroy another. We can choose whether or not we will allow anger to be molded into hatred.

Seen in this light, it is apparent that Father Martin was attempting to inspire his parishioners at St. Agnes Church to respond to evil with moral goodness. He did this not from weak sentimentality but out of a prophetic recognition that the Christian ethics of love can sometimes be more demanding than comforting. In doing so, his efforts may help to resist the insidious and recurrent tendency of evil to gain momentum by co-opting its victims through inspiring hatred for their oppressors. This same momentumwhat Martin Luther King Jr. called the chain reaction of evilcontinues to fuel the almost insatiable appetite for violence that has been eating up generations in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, the Middle East and central Africa.

Resisting this cycle of malevolence by no means involves minimizing the evil that has been done. On the contrary, the more heightened our awareness of evil, the more morally appropriate and mature will be our response to itprovided that our consciences are informed by an underlying faith that we live in a moral universe and a hope that the power of goodness will ultimately defeat the force of evil. In theological terms, we believe that history can be the scene not only of sin but also of grace-inspired redemption.

This fundamental belief in the power of goodness, of course, is precisely what enabled Father Martin to have the courage to stand before his traumatized parishioners and to preach the challenging but appropriate message of forgiveness. Forgiveness in this context can result only from a long process; it certainly cannot be achieved overnight. Father Martin sketched the steps he went through: Anger is over; betrayal is over; mercy and forgiveness is the level I’m at now. Similarly, a parish community cannot jump from learning of sexual abuse to the Christian ethic of forgiveness without moving through a collective process that allows for the airing of feelings of anger, betrayal and outrage. Even some of those who agreed with Father Martin’s message wonder about its timing, whether he may have moved too quickly to forgiveness and thereby short-circuited the ability of some parishioners to have their own anger recognized as legitimate.

For this reason we ought to hope that Father Martin continues to find the strength to preach this healing message and that his parishioners continue to discover the courage to grow with him in the difficult months ahead. There is no question that the victims must not be forgotten or that justice needs to be done, but what Archbishop Desmund Tutu discovered in South Africa is true for all of us, both as individuals and as communities: there is no future without forgiveness.

Stephen J. Pope is chair of the theology department at Boston College in Chestnut Hill, Mass.

Comments

(Rev.) Val J. Peter | 1/22/2007 - 1:02pm
Stephen Pope’s article (11/18) on forgiveness of a child molester misses three important points. There is a time and a place for everything under heaven, including a call for forgiveness. After long experience working here at Girls and Boys Town with abused children, I am convinced that the wrong time to call for forgiveness is immediately upon discovery of the crime.

The discovery/public announcement of a crime against a child calls for three things: (1) outrage (I am outraged, as pastor, that this happened in my church with my employee); (2) a call for swift justice (Anyone who commits this crime needs swift justice; anyone who knows anything about it should come forward right away and cooperate with the law enforcement officers); (3) the need to develop better preventive measures right here in the parish, and to do so post haste.

Readers of Mr. Pope’s article can come away feeling alienated from the parishioners who expressed anger, frustration and even contempt. Those hostile feelings of the parishioners are quite appropriate under the circumstances the author described: a religious education director, over a long period of time, harming children, and the good-natured, faith-filled pastor immediately calling for forgiveness. That is not the time to do that. Many parishioners in these circumstances feel that church officials should have known. Now they want to dismiss it without an opportunity to express righteous anger.

He is missing the developmental stages of harm, anger and forgiveness. He is imposing the obligation of forgiveness on top of the harm already done. I will take my stand with the parishioners on this issue.

(Rev.) Val J. Peter | 1/22/2007 - 1:02pm
Stephen Pope’s article (11/18) on forgiveness of a child molester misses three important points. There is a time and a place for everything under heaven, including a call for forgiveness. After long experience working here at Girls and Boys Town with abused children, I am convinced that the wrong time to call for forgiveness is immediately upon discovery of the crime.

The discovery/public announcement of a crime against a child calls for three things: (1) outrage (I am outraged, as pastor, that this happened in my church with my employee); (2) a call for swift justice (Anyone who commits this crime needs swift justice; anyone who knows anything about it should come forward right away and cooperate with the law enforcement officers); (3) the need to develop better preventive measures right here in the parish, and to do so post haste.

Readers of Mr. Pope’s article can come away feeling alienated from the parishioners who expressed anger, frustration and even contempt. Those hostile feelings of the parishioners are quite appropriate under the circumstances the author described: a religious education director, over a long period of time, harming children, and the good-natured, faith-filled pastor immediately calling for forgiveness. That is not the time to do that. Many parishioners in these circumstances feel that church officials should have known. Now they want to dismiss it without an opportunity to express righteous anger.

He is missing the developmental stages of harm, anger and forgiveness. He is imposing the obligation of forgiveness on top of the harm already done. I will take my stand with the parishioners on this issue.