by the Revd Dr Lorraine Cavanagh, Author and Blogger
If comments surrounding the IICSA report and its findings are to be believed, and we must believe them, it seems there is little hope of real closure on this subject. But is it ‘closure’ that we really need? Closure is often thought of as being a matter of drawing a line and moving on, of forgiving and forgetting.
The idea that the wounds that have been inflicted on the survivors of sexual and spiritual abuse in the Church can simply be forgotten in one sweeping brushstroke of forgiveness is absurd and utterly reprehensible. If you are stabbed in the street you do not forget the pain, both physical and emotional, as the ambulance is taking you to hospital. Real forgetting, and the forgiving that goes with it, is only made possible by healing.
In the wake of the IICSA findings, it is clear that the Church, along with all those who have been party to the abuse, needs to be healed of its pain. At the moment we are in a kind of limbo, a place where the victims, the perpetrators, and the Church as a body, is rendered powerless in regard to how its pain can be healed. So we need to move forward into healing and then, at some point in the future, begin to talk of forgiveness.
Every member of the Church is entitled to either withhold or proffer forgiveness (John 20:23). It is a responsibility in which we all share. because as members of a single body we share in the pain of the abuse revealed through the IICSA process. Forgiveness is therefore not a clerical prerogative. Neither is it unconditional. It is contingent to healing. Forgiveness is also central to the missional task. This suggests that there are two questions which we, as Church, need to ask ourselves: Do we want to be healed? And do we want the institutional Church to survive in its present form?
When Jesus heals the paralysed man at the Bethesda pool he first asks him if he really wants to be healed (John 5: 1-15). Does he want to take responsibility for his own life? I think he is also asking this question of the Church. Do we want, as a single body, to take responsibility for our shared pain, to enter into the depths of it, and so find healing? Entering into the depths of our shared pain means facing into the shame we are all experiencing as a result of what has been revealed by IICSA. But in order to do this we must face into the shame of both the victim and the perpetrator.
Those who have experienced any kind of abuse in their lives, whether or not in the context of the Church, will feel the victim’s shame very keenly. It resonates with their own. It also lives on in countless repercussions of being controlled or dehumanised in ordinary life, even if this is unintentional and in no way related to the original abuser.
Irrespective of denial and excuses, the shame which must ultimately be experienced by the perpetrators of sexual abuse in the Church, and by those who abused their positions of power by covering up for them, also needs to be faced and felt by all of us. There is no place for the abrogating of responsibility for abuse to any one group of people, and there is no place for denying that complacency has allowed it to continue for decades. This is not to say that we are all guilty, or even guilty by association, but that we are, as members of the Church, responsible to the perpetrators as well as to the victims, and to society, for the abuse and its consequences. At the same time, the degree of responsibility will depend on the degree of power a person has in the Church’s institutional life.
All abuse is an abuse of power. While independent assessment and adjudication of abuse, along with improved safeguarding measures, may help to prevent it happening in the future, they will not heal the Church. Some safeguarding measures may even make matters worse by exacerbating the fear and distrust which already exists within a hierarchical system that is proving unfit for purpose in the 21st century. Fear, and the systemic distrust it generates, makes us complacent. It is easier to just ‘move on’ and ‘forget’. But moving on and pretending to forget does not bring about deep healing. So the question remains. Do we really want to be healed? Do we want to own the pain it causes us, both as victims and, in the case of a few, as perpetrators? Are we prepared to risk where that will take us?