-by Rev Timothy Norris, pastor of St. Paul in Ham Lake, MN, delivered at Sunday Mass, Oct. 27, 2013
“O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” In my homily today I would like to talk to you about the very difficult and painful subject of the clergy sexual abuse scandal which is once again very much in the news here locally as a result of the recent investigative reports conducted by Minnesota Public Radio news into some recent cases of actual and alleged sexual misconduct by some priests of our archdiocese, and allegations of how archdiocesan officials may have mishandled their response to these events.
I hope that what I say here does not add to the pain or alienation that anyone here may be feeling; rather, my aim is to search for hope and healing, as difficult as that may seem given the present circumstances.
First and foremost, I want to apologize to all victims of sexual misconduct by priests or other members of the clergy, and to their families and loved ones.
I know the shame and anguish I feel as a member of the Church and of the clergy that you have been subjected to such a horrific betrayal of trust, and I can only imagine the depths of your suffering. I want to apologize also for the many failures of our Church leadership and others who have left you feeling doubly victimized by their failure to prevent the abuse or to acknowledge their mistakes and to seek to make amends.
I hope and pray that you can find healing. And, if there is any way that I can be of assistance in that healing, I would be glad to help you to the extent that I am able.
We are all sinners
Secondly, I must acknowledge and confess that I, too, am a sinner, and that I am very sorry for all of the ways that I have failed in thought, word and deed to reflect the purity and love of our Lord Jesus Christ in my priestly ministry and life. I ask forgiveness from God and from all of you. “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
Pope Francis was asked in a recent interview that received much publicity, “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” And, his response was, “I am a sinner . . . . I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.”
He then goes on to explain using the image of a famous painting known as the calling of St. Matthew by Caravaggio (above): “That finger of Jesus pointing at Matthew. That’s me. I feel like him. Like Matthew. It is the gesture of Matthew that strikes me: he holds on to his money as if to say, ‘No, not me! No, this money is mine.’ Here, this is me, a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze. And this is what I said when they asked me if I would accept my election as pontiff. I am a sinner, but I trust in the infinite mercy and patience of our Lord Jesus Christ, and I accept in a spirit of penance.”
St. Matthew was a publican, a tax collector. In the Gospel reading today, Jesus uses the simple prayer of another publican, “O God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” to point out an awful truth: That no matter how self-righteous and holy we think we might be, we are all just sinners.
Archbishop Nienstedt in his column this week in The Catholic Spirit acknowledges that, in regard to the efforts to prevent and address clergy misconduct during this past decade, “serious mistakes have been made. . . . There is reason to question whether or not the policies and procedures were uniformly followed. There is also a question as to the prudence of the judgments that have been made.”
Now, we who look at those failures from the outside may be tempted to scoff and judge like the Pharisee: “Thank God I am not like those jerks — more interested in their own reputations and protecting the image of the Church and pedophile priests than they are in protecting children.”
But, in all honesty, have we ever tried to put ourselves in their place? Hindsight is always 20/20. But are we really so certain that we might not make the same mistakes or misjudgments, whether out of ignorance, fear and cowardice, pride or ambition?
We might think, “Thank God I am not like those pedophile priests.” But how many of us struggle with lustful inclinations, viewing adult pornography, masturbation, pre-marital sex, infidelity, etc.? Do those things make us a danger to be around children?
We think, ‘But I would never harm a child.’ Yet, how many of us have ever come close, losing our temper with the kids perhaps? Our society is rightly intolerant of child sexual abuse, but why do so many in our society champion the right for a child’s life to be extinguished before it has even been born?
I mention these things not to make excuses for or downplay the gravity of the offenses of pedophile clergy, or Church leaders who fail to protect the young and vulnerable. Those offenses are rightly to be condemned, and they need to be corrected.
Rather, the thing that I want to point out is that there, but for the grace of God, go I. Sin is a universal human condition. Nobody can say, “Thank God I am not like the rest of humanity,’’ because we are all sinners.
I am a sinner. Archbishop Nienstedt is a sinner. Pope Francis is a sinner. We are all sinners. And, we come to the Church as sinners in search of mercy and redemption. The scandal of clergy sexual abuse is the problem of how the Church is at the same time holy and yet sinful in its members. It is a problem that has existed ever since the Church began.
Now, I have spent much time in prayer and reflection this week agonizing over this problem, at times almost to the point of despair. The contradiction between the holiness of the priest who is called to serve and love the Church in the image of Christ the Good Shepherd, and the priest who betrays that trust by abusing a child is so great that it boggles the mind.
How is this possible?
Why can this happen?
Why doesn’t anybody stop it?
It has been announced that next year Pope John Paul II will be canonized a saint. Some critics claim that Pope John Paul II should not be canonized because they think he did not do enough to address the problem of clergy sexual abuse. But let me suggest for a moment that I think the scandal goes even higher up than the pope.
Well, who is higher up than the pope? Let me suggest that the scandal started with Jesus. It sounds blasphemous. But hear me out.
Who after all was responsible for appointing the first pope and bishops in the Church? Was it not Jesus when he chose the Twelve Apostles?
Why did he choose men like Peter, who tried to turn down the job by saying, “Leave me Lord, I am a sinful man,” or like doubting Thomas, or Matthew the greedy tax collector — men he knew would all deny and abandon him like cowards in his hour of need?
True, all men are weak and sinful. Jesus had to choose somebody, but were these really the best men he could find?
Most scandalous of all, why did he choose Judas Iscariot, who he knew full well would betray him and, unlike the others, would despair and take his own life, and not turn back in faith? At least the pope and bishops are mere human beings, who may not know if a priest they are about to ordain will turn out to be a pedophile or not. But we believe that Jesus is the all-powerful, all-knowing God, and yet he knew Judas would betray him. Why did He do nothing to stop it?
After all, we believe that God gave special grace to the Blessed Virgin Mary to preserve her from all stain of sin, so that she could be the mother of his son. If Jesus is truly the head of his Church, then why doesn’t he give special grace to his priests to keep them from sin?
Or, at the very least, why doesn’t he prevent the pedophiles from becoming priests in the first place? How can God let innocent children suffer such abuse? Doesn’t he care? Is he punishing us? Doesn’t he love us? Does he even exist?
The question has been asked so many times before. Why does God let bad things happen to good people? Why doesn’t God put an end to war, crime, poverty, and injustice? Why does God allow rapists, and murderers and pedophiles to run rampant in our streets? Why does God allow the weeds to grow with the wheat? Why, oh why, oh why must these evils exist in our world?
The scandal of clergy sexual abuse of minors is the very face of evil glaring at us, mocking our faith and hope in a loving, caring God, challenging us to deny that such a God exists, and daring us to leave the Church behind as just a bunch of deluded, hypocritical fools.
Of course, abandoning faith in God and the Church won’t really change the sorry lot of humanity. One will still have to resign oneself to living in a risky world, full of pedophiles and predators and evil lurking around every corner with little hope that things might get any better. Is there any alternative to just simple resignation, or even worse, giving up on it all in despair?
At this point I want to cry out like Job, “I have spoken but did not understand; things too marvelous for me, which I did not know. Therefore I disown what I have said, and repent in dust and ashes.”
And all that I am left with is the disturbing image of Jesus suffering and dying on the cross, with his mother Mary crying in anguish beneath him.
What terrible suffering Mary must have felt at that moment knowing that Jesus had been betrayed and abandoned by his closest friends — the same sort of suffering I imagine a parent must feel when their child has been abused by a priest. “How could you do such a thing to my son?”
Why did Jesus allow his innocent mother Mary to experience such pain? She had done no wrong. She did not need to be punished for anything. And, yet, he allowed it. Seeing his mother suffer must only have added so much more to his own pain and humiliation, and yet he accepted it.
Our faith teaches us that he accepted it as the price that needed to be paid for our salvation from sin — the mystery of Christ crucified, “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” The absurdity that we dare to believe is that the cross, that suffering, and that all the evils that exist in our world, including the devastating scandal and pain of clergy sexual abuse, can be instruments of redemption, if we, by faith in the grace of God, do not let the power of such evils to overcome our ability to love.
That is what Jesus showed us by pardoning his persecutors from the cross. “Father, forgive them, they know not what they are doing.” That is what he showed us when he gathered Peter and the other disciples together again after his resurrection, that he still wanted to be their friend, despite how they had hurt him with their denials and abandonment.
That is the grace that he must have given to his mother Mary for her, too, to be able to forgive and gather together again as friends with the disciples in the upper room when they all received the Holy Spirit.
In this moment, Jesus is inviting us to not lose faith and hope in the power of his love to overcome and heal the wounds of sin. Jesus says to each one of us, “I have forgiven you for all of the pain and sorrow you have caused me by your sins. So do not let your hearts be hardened by the pain and suffering that others’ sins have caused to you, even the terrible betrayal of clergy sexual abuse. I know its hurts; I know it is hard, but do not let the pain overcome your ability to love and to forgive. Forgive even if those who have hurt you do not acknowledge their sins or change their ways. Forgive 70 times seven times. Trust in the power of my grace and love, to help you carry your heavy burden, to heal your broken heart, and to live once again in love, compassion and peace.”
Working to do better
As a member of the clergy I do acknowledge that many of my brothers in the clergy have sinned against you, that many in our Church leadership have sinned against you, that I have sinned against you.
While I may not be personally responsible for all the acts of sexual abuse, and negligent in preventing those abuses that have occurred, I cannot, of course, ask for your forgiveness of these sins without expressing true contrition and a resolve to make amends.
I hope you know by now how truly sorry I am for the pain that so many children and families have had to endure because of the evil of clergy sexual abuse.
I know that many people are rightly angry and frustrated with our Church leadership for not doing more to acknowledge our failures and to correct them. While I cannot speak directly for them, I believe that Archbishop Nienstedt and the others in our Church leadership responsible for supervising our clergy are indeed sorrowful as well, and regret very much the pain that has been caused to people because of the abuse.
I think that they are imperfect human persons, like myself, who, given a very tough job and responsibility, have tried to do what they thought was best at the time, but nevertheless have made mistakes and questionable judgments, as the archbishop admits in his column [Oct. 24] in The Catholic Spirit.
Out of love and justice for those who have been victimized by clergy sexual abuse, I know there is so much more that we need to do to make amends for our past failures, and to change our ways and correct our faults, so that we can do better at protecting our children and the vulnerable from further abuse in the future.
To this end, Archbishop Nienstedt in his column has spelled out some initial steps that the archdiocese will implement, including a special independent task force to investigate all matters related to sexual misconduct by clergy and to recommend further changes and improvements for preventing abuse in the future.
The archbishop has also ordered a review of all clergy personnel files by an outside firm to evaluate whether anyone who is currently serving in active ministry might be a risk to public safety.
For my part, as your pastor, I promise to do all that I can here at the Church of St. Paul or in other spheres where I might have influence, to make sure that our policies and procedures for the protection of the vulnerable and young are being implemented and followed and improved as needed.
If you or someone you know has been victimized by clergy or others and you are in need of help, don’t be afraid to seek it. There is help available from trained civil authorities in government child protection, social services and law enforcement agencies.
With the exception of what I hear in the confessional, I, as a member of the clergy, as well as teachers, and other counselors, are required by Minnesota law to report any suspected abuse of a minor or vulnerable adult to these same civil authorities. However, if there is any way I can be assistance to anyone struggling with these problems, I offer to do what I can to help. Our archdiocese also offers victim advocacy and assistance services.
It is an unrealistic and impossible expectation that we will ever be able to completely eliminate all risk of clergy sexual misconduct and abuse from our Church, no matter how hard we try. But that is no reason for not trying and doing all that we can to do better.
Ultimately, however, as weak, imperfect, sinful human people, we must rely on God´s grace and mercy to sustain us and help us in all of our efforts to heal, to reconcile and to protect each other from harm.
O God, be merciful to us sinners.”
Matthew, a sinner