Purification and Reparation: What Catholics Can Do With Our Present Anger

COMMENTARY: Each of us must ask the Lord what he wants us to do and the grace to do it.

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Many Catholics are rightly angry about the latest revelations of clergy sexual abuse, sexual misconduct, and diocesan cover-ups. Obviously, the worst part is the suffering of the victims. Any kind of sexual assault is profoundly wounding, but infliction by a cleric — who is supposed to represent Christ — adds a spiritual dimension of suffering.

These sacrileges also affect the whole Church, damaging our faith, and our trust in other clerics — though most are innocent.

Anger over these things is natural and just. The question is, what to do with it? Especially as followers of Christ.

Anger in itself is not sinful. It is an emotion, a drive to right an injustice or enact needed change; it becomes sinful when it grows excessive or unjust. “Be angry but do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26); anger must be channeled rightly.

Righteous anger is our friend here because there is work to be done, and we need energy to accomplish it. Here are some steps to put this anger to effective use.

On Sept. 19, 2018, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Administrative Committee released its Statement on Sex Abuse Scandals, announcing the intention to establish “a third-party reporting system that will receive … complaints of sexual abuse of minors, … sexual harassment or sexual misconduct with adults by a bishop.”

This is a good start, but not enough.

Not every bishop is aware of how fed up the laity are, how much needs to change, or willing to take painful measures.

Some Catholics are withholding donations, but I’m afraid that alone will not work. Without a letter telling him why, the bishop won’t be aware of it for some time, and by then he won’t necessarily connect it to the scandal. There are other problems with that tactic:

Most priests are innocent and have given their lives to God and the Church; they need and deserve our support to carry out their vocation; we in turn need them to minister the sacraments;

It hurts the innocent more than the guilty: parishes and the poor will suffer more than the bishop.

I agree that we need to get the bishops’ attention; I’d like to suggest some other ways of ensuring changes are made.


Write Your Bishop

Writing our bishops is the most effective action (backed up by prayer and fasting) we can take. It’s very important that many of us do so.

Recently professor Janet Smith advised explicitly asking our bishops to clean house because it will come with unpopular costs — e.g., loss of ministerial manpower, resulting in the closing of some parishes. Many bishops will not take the needed steps without our support.

Someone close to me wrote his bishop, mentioning the “priests and bishops who … [deny] there is anything sinful whatsoever with homosexual acts. If … gay networks do in fact exist, they would account for a significant portion of this open dissent. The silence of bishops has in large part been what has sustained these.”

Within a week, he received a personal response from his bishop, pledging to reflect on these points and share them at the November meeting of U.S. bishops. Not everyone will get such a stellar response, but writing can be more impactful than we might think.

I would add one thing to Smith’s excellent list of what to say to your bishop, namely:


Call for Fiscal Reparation

“It is praiseworthy to impose restitution ‘to correct vices and maintain justice,’” says the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2302, quoting Aquinas).

One injustice of these sex scandals is being overlooked: the diocese paying the lawsuits and settlements entirely, with negative consequences to the needy.

This is not to suggest that the victims don’t deserve restitution. Rather, it’s to point out that predators and concealers are getting off virtually scot-free. Sure, they lose face and hopefully their positions, but it would be better for them to pay damages too.

Yes, the damages are usually too high for an individual to pay, but there are two rejoinders to that.

First, many of the guilty are diocesan clergy — who do not take a vow of poverty, so often have some funds. They likely cannot pay in full, but they can pay as much as possible, even if it means liquidating their assets and garnishing their income or pension. If at that point they are in need, the diocese can help. (See Canon 1350.)

Such a policy could also be a deterrent. It won’t deter all potential predators, especially those acting compulsively, but it will deter bishops who might otherwise conceal these things.

Some relevant canon laws could be applied, e.g., Canon 1333 §4, which prohibits those suspended from office from receiving pensions, and Canon 1729, on injured parties gaining reparation for damages in a Church trial. We can ask the bishops to find a way for the abusers and concealers to make fiscal reparation, overseen by the independent agency set up to investigate reported abuses.

The second rejoinder is that if the diocese has to pay the rest, we can view it as an act of love to the victims. Sharing in the fiscal reparation demonstrates our compassion and solidarity with them.


Spiritual Steps

Just as important are the spiritual steps.

The first will not be popular but is absolutely necessary: forgive. Since I’m advocating fiscal reparation for the guilty, I’m obviously not suggesting an “oh-no-worries” leniency.

Forgiveness is not pretending that wrongdoing is not wrong or abandoning justice. Forgiveness is letting go of vengeance and hatred, and instead willing the eternal good of the offender. The best forgiveness means praying for that person.

And prayer is greatly needed at this time. We need to pray for the victims, the hierarchy, all members of the Church,  and those outside the Church observing this mess. Only God can fix this. We must act too, but we need his answers, direction, grace, and help or our efforts will fall short.

Fasting is another key spiritual act, as demonic forces are clearly at work. Jesus said that “prayer and fasting” are needed in order to conquer them (Mark 9:29).  

Thus it is crucial that we pray, fast, and make sacrifices for salvation, healing, the restoration of the Church, and especially for those who need God’s graces most but are too far gone to ask for them.


Communal Prayer and Action

We must also nudge our brothers and sisters to put their anger into helpful actions too.

On a practical level, you can make it easier by writing a letter to the bishop based on Janet Smith’s list and distributing copies or printing one letter for many to sign.

The ideal would be a website set up, with a sample letter which Catholics could adjust, sign, and send online. One group of women and another of men, have done so, asking Pope Francis to respond to Archbishop Viganò.

We can also publicize and participate in the International Week of Prayer and Fasting (Sept. 29-Oct. 7), the Rosary Coast-to-Coast on Oct. 7, or in a parish Rosary or holy hour.

Peaceful prayer rallies could also be very effective. Some Catholic groups plan to pray outside the U.S. bishops conference office in Baltimore when they next meet, Nov. 12-15 (see, e.g., Pray for Catholic Bishops.) An alternative would be a Rosary rally outside one’s diocesan cathedral. Ideally, such rallies could take place across the country, say, the day before the bishops’ assembly: Sunday, Nov. 11.  

Each of us must ask the Lord what he wants us to do and the grace to do it — and get busy.

Jeanette Flood is a freelance writer living in Ohio with her husband and their six children.

After graduating from Franciscan University of Steubenville, she received her M.A. from The Catholic University of America.

Her first book, Eight Ways of Loving God Revealed by Love Himself, will be released by Ignatius Press in 2019.

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The prayer recalls and invites Catholics to participate in the nine days that the Blessed Virgin Mary and the apostles spent in prayer after Christ ascended into heaven.