“My people are ruined for lack of knowledge,” lamented the Lord through the prophet Hosea.
Thousands of years later, and in the wake of the latest round of clerical abuse scandals, the Lord may well have amended that by saying, “My people are ruined for lack of remembered knowledge.”
As this week’s meeting on the “Protection of Minors in the Church” convenes in Rome, we would do well to reflect on these words.
This certainly isn’t the first time that the church has battled clerical sexual abuse. “Some of the worst and most widespread outbreaks took place in the eleventh, twelfth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries,” observed church historian and theologian C. Colt Anderson in a 2004 Theological Studies article.
Anderson’s research (which has received renewed attention) focused on the groundbreaking work of St. Peter Damian, the 11th-century monk and later cardinal who became known as the Doctor of Reform.
How fitting, then, that this week’s meeting in Rome coincides with the Feb. 21 feast of this saint.
Drawing on both Scripture and tradition, Damian wrote extensively on the problem of clerical sexual abuse and how religious and laity could, and should, work together to address it. He presented his plans to no less than two pontiffs — Pope Leo IX and Pope Nicholas II.
Nor was Damian alone in his efforts, as Anderson points out. St. Gregory the Great (540-604), St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) and plenty of others before, between, and after had written about this scourge.
With such an impressive chorus of saintly voices over the centuries, why have we as a church failed to listen?
Sexual abuse is certainly one of the most incomprehensible of evils, so heinous that victims’ disclosures of assault are far too often met with disbelief and denial. As a result, abuse within an institution such as the church usually has to hit a critical mass before redress and reform can take place.
From a victim’s perspective, that’s essentially the equivalent of requiring a certain number of fatalities at a dangerous intersection to justify the installation of a traffic light.
Maybe part of the problem is that humans collectively tend to forget — or simply want to forget — even some of the most defining tragedies in our history. Reflecting on the horrors of the Holocaust, Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby noted that “Holocaust remembrance has not inoculated human beings against treating other human beings with brutality.”
Yet as Christians, we are called to serve an eternal God who entered human history and forever altered it. Every day we recite afresh Scriptures and prayers that are thousands of years old; every moment at Mass we participate in a sacrifice that radically challenges the concept of time itself.
We are not condemned to repeat continuously the errors of centuries past in a kind of vague amnesia. We are instead called to advance continuously the kingdom of God on earth — here, now and for those to come.
While we have made some progress over the past three decades in protecting minors, we have fallen far short of building both a church and a world where children are safe from sexual assault. We have a long way to go not only in cleansing long-concealed wounds in the body of Christ, but also in effectively diagnosing and preventing the psychological, social and spiritual pathologies that result in sexual abuse in the first place.
The voices of victims, and of reformers like St. Peter Damian, will continue to echo until we as a church are truly willing to face both past and present, and to look ahead while resolving “never again.”
Gina Christian is a senior content producer at CatholicPhilly.com. Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.
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