Changing Hearts: The Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors

By Teresa Pitt Green, Founder

By forming the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, Pope Francis made an important gesture at an important time—to transform a global organization that spans every country in the world, including 1.25 billion Catholics,[1] who comprise 50% of the world’s Christians and almost 20% of the world’s total population[2]. Among them, there are 5,100 bishops and 413,000 priests.[3] That’s quite a behemoth to reorient, given that the changes in the Church affect every culture in which the Church operates. Many of those cultures are exceedingly dismissive of the dignity of children. As any organizational-change expert will declare, with a gasp, that’s a lot of minds to change and hearts to convert.

I pray for the Commission in this first step to plot a course for reform, but I feel concern when I hear of the struggle faced by Peter Saunders and Mary Collins who represent survivors among its members. Other Commission members, despite their best intentions, may not understand what complicates Mr Saunders and Ms. Collins’s service. Indeed, they may be contributing to the difficulty inadvertently. Priests, nuns, deacons and seminarians who attend workshops in which I participate often are stunned to hear how faith is a double-edged sword for survivors. And grieved. And motivated. Once they understand they quickly and quite creatively adjust how they care for survivors and their loved ones. To what degree has the Commission similarly focused and learned a healing language shared among its members, I wonder.

Thankfully, it is the Church’s great riches which draw survivors to remain in or return to the Church, but those same riches can be pitfalls for anyone wounded by the Church. Scholastic traditions can overly intellectualize the experience of abuse, running roughshod over a broken heart that needs salve. Our gentle mystical traditions can foster unity among diverse cultures in a world parish of sinners, but they can also be pathways to disconnect from compelling practical issues of self-care—and for survivors an unhealthful escape from problems. The holy force of long-suffering in the Church can unintentionally sound like the deafening silence, which is the sound that shrouded our agony as children and concealed the violence of abusers. By contrast, being heard by a spiritual companion knowledgeable in the concepts and language of trauma can do a great service. It can keep a tremor of pain from growing into the loud cry or the inconvenient rage of the unheard soul, such as Mr. Saunders’s reaction may be. And, it can improve the capacity for relationships with all people suffering trauma in a traumatized world; indeed, it simply animates afresh what God revealed to us in His Son’s Passion, Death and Resurrection.

I imagine all members of the Pontifical Commission are encountering a mix of resistance and long-suffering. For the two survivors this has added dimension. They have quite courageously chosen to walk into their own wounds in a setting reminiscent of their former trauma and, managing that personal grief, contend with the silence on more levels than other members may appreciate. They have chosen a Via Dolorosa without, perhaps, consciously considering what it means for their work, and for their faith. I have no way of knowing whether the Commission has, as a whole, considered its own ability, beyond compassion, to interact with survivors who carry this cross, but I am tempted to wonder considering Mr. Saunders’s public fury.

For Mr. Saunders, it might be helpful to entertain the possibility that not everyone’s reaction is nefarious. It takes courage to assume good intentions in the same setting where we have been harmed and where that harm was once masterfully concealed by bishops, lawyers and even trained therapists. Nevertheless, how else do we proceed except by proceeding? And, how else do we reject the lingering effects of abuse on our psyches except to cultivate an openness to good intentions even where we disagree?

Well-intentioned Church leaders may simply withdraw into themselves to grapple with their own pain and confusion and shame—all natural reactions to denial breaking down in a dysfunctional dynamic. They must face how their vocation and training to forgive freely was perverted by evildoers, making them complicit. They are entitled to all the stages of their grief and privacy in that regard. On each side of this divide, however silent the grieving may be, or however loud and assertive it becomes, there is grieving nevertheless, there is a lot of grieving, and it must run its course and find its healing for reconciliation to begin. Sometimes this means waiting on silence. Sometimes it means listening to rage. If Mr. Saunders is heard in his grief as he walks bravely in this difficult service, he may be better able to offer something similar to those on the other side of this wound in the Church. In that sense, to my mind, his heart healing at this juncture within the Commission helps other hearts in pain on both sides of the divide to heal and connect.

Healing is messy, and recovery exacts a bitter price. Survivors must assume full responsibility for feelings and behaviors, even those caused by the ones who victimized us. Ordained men who may be entirely innocent of enabling abusers must carry the sins left behind. If nothing else, both sides of this wound in the Church share the experience of walking together through unknown territory. In particular, Mr. Saunders is carrying quite a cross on his shoulders if the silence of the Church is triggering his own past trauma and driving his anger. For the sake of his own wellbeing, he may need to leave. For the sake of the Church, however, I am inclined to hope he stays and muddles through healing in proximity to the hierarchy, bringing spiritual wealth to the Commission and its work in the process.

[2] “The World’s Catholic Population,” Ross Toro, Live Science February 19 2013

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