Sin and expiationFR. RAYMOND DE SOUZA
This week’s sexual abuse settlement in L.A. is a welcome development.
Part of that attention is because almost everyone outside of North America finds the excesses of the American legal system rather startling. Settlements in no other country reach that level, and the idea of lawyers getting up to US$250-million dollars, as they will in this case, is simply inconceivable elsewhere. The Los Angeles case is so enormous largely because the State of California repealed, temporarily, the statute of limitations in 2002 in order to encourage more lawsuits against the Catholic Church. Retroactively changing the rules is generally thought to offend against natural justice, but it proved quite popular in California.
Notwithstanding the excesses, the sexual abuse settlements are a welcome development. In the first place, the prospect of civil damages on a significant scale has served to encourage victims to come forward; if such large settlements were possible in other countries, there would be more cases there, too. The settlement process has allowed many victims to be released from the pain and shame they suffered for too long at the hands of those who should have helped them. Without the settlements, many victims would have continued to suffer, often in silence, often alone.
Second, the Church has now removed from her ranks those priests who did prey upon the most vulnerable, betraying in a most iniquitous way the grace of their ordination. New procedures, prompted both by genuine horror at the abuse and the fear of future liability, have been implemented so that it would be near-impossible now for an abuser to continue in ministry. Children are indeed safer.
Third, while the cost of the settlements is staggering, and will result in an unavoidable reduction in Catholic social services to the poorest and most needy, the payments will have an unintended side effect. The Church in the United States has become far too bureaucratic and institutional, rather than innovative and evangelical, over the past three generations. The only way to curb bureaucracy is to starve it of funding. This is not the most pleasant way to do it, but it will serve that necessary purpose.
Fourth, to the extent that other churches and institutions are interested in dealing with the ubiquitous problem of sexual abuse, the Catholic experience provides many lessons.
Given the scale of sexual abuse in society at large, it is clearly not a Catholic problem alone. A recent report from just the three largest insurance companies for Protestant churches in the United States revealed that they typically receive some 260 reports per year of minors being abused by clergy or staff. The Catholic Church’s independent audit of all American cases since 1950 reported 13,000 “credible accusations” (which is a much wider criterion than insurance company reports), or about 228 per year. The vast majority of those accusations were from before 1990, so the annual Catholic figure would be much lower today. One would expect much higher figures from Protestants than Catholics in the United States, given that the former are far more numerous. The painful experience of the Catholic Church these past years might help our Protestant brethren—to say nothing of schools, hospitals and other institutions—deal with the same problem.
Fifth, the Catholic experience can be considered expiatory for a society rife with sexual abuse and sexual violence. Some Catholics grumble that we have been singled out for media attention, or that other institutions do not face litigation for something that happened 30 or 40 years ago. That may be true, but the Church is not just another institution. In Catholic doctrine, the Church is the body of Christ, and as she shares in the holiness of the saints, so too she suffers from the wickedness of the sinners. Jesus Christ suffers not only for His Church, but in His Church, too.
That suffering has been intense these past few years, but Christian suffering is meant to be purifying and redemptive, and to offer expiation for sins. The sins have been many and grievous, there can be no doubt. So too then is the need then for expiation.
Father Raymond J. de Souza, "Sin and expiation." National Post, (Canada) July 19, 2007.
Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.
Copyright © 2007 National Post
Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.