The issue of forgiveness gets more complicated when a clergy person engages in sexual abuse of children.
Children hold a special place of honor in religious traditions. Jesus teaches, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them. (Mark 10:13,15).
Qualities such as trust, simplicity, joyfulness, spontaneity, and innocence are found more readily in children than adults. All adults have a special responsibility to take care of and protect children. Children place trust in the adults they know and for clergy the trust takes on the added dimension of the sacred. Acts of abuse, molestation and violence against children are also acts against God.
Before I became a parish priest I worked as an advocate and mediator for victims of clergy abuse. Forgiveness was a very difficult issue for the victims. The trauma encompasses the physical, the emotional, the psychological and the spiritual dimension of the person. Most wanted to forgive and felt additional guilt when they were unable to. There were steps that could be taken that made their ability to forgive more likely. Such steps included:
Victims want to know that by disclosing their abuse they help to protect others help others from future abuse. This can be done when churches take steps provide appropriate education on issues of abuse in Sunday schools for staff and students.
Forgiving an abuser does not mean that the abuser is not accountable for their wrongdoing. It means that the victim can be freed from the gnawing pain that continues long after the abuse had occurred. Lewis B. Smedes wrote, ”When you release the wrongdoer from the wrong, you cut a malignant tumor out of your inner life. You set a prisoner free, but you discover that the real prisoner was yourself.”