The need for healing of the broken-hearted is no more evident than what was seen this week on national television in Australia. The broken-hearted who have suffered sexual abuse at the hands of the church. This week the Catholic Church was in the spotlight. Yet, there are other churches, other denominations where countless others have been sexually abused. Sadly, this is the insidious culture of evil in our community, in the churches, that preys on vulnerable children and adults.
Just recently I read the book ‘Blood on the Rosary’ by Sue Smethurst and Margaret Harrod. It is Margaret’s story of her childhood, of the sexual abuse by her father. To escape the abuse, she became a Catholic nun at the age of 22 years. Her twin brother a Salesian priest. After leaving the convent and seeking healing she was sexual abused by two priests. She then had to face the truth that her dearly loved twin brother was a paedophile.
Margaret’s heart was broken but that did not stop her, after much heartache finding a pathway towards healing. She went on a courageous journey to bring paedophile priests to justice, including her twin brother, who is now in prison.
A study I read years ago (data collected between 1950 and 2002) in America identified one out of twenty-five clergy in the Catholic Church were subject to sexual abuse allegations. Allegations that were substantiated. Another key finding was the low incidence of victims reporting abuse to authorities (15%) and lower still of reporting by church officials. There are insufficient checks and balances and insufficient policies and practices in place to protect children that prevent the entry of ‘professional experts’ to deal with matters of abuse. Sexual abuse of children is a crime. Sexual assault of an adult is a crime. Covering up sexual abuse is a crime. Perpetrators must not be protected. Healing the broken-hearted must be a priority for the church.
Over the centuries the church has protected the institution, the church, and the perpetrator over the victim. This is why there is so much hurt and anger coming from the broken-hearted, the victims of child sexual abuse, yet to receive healing, yet to receive justice.
As a social worker I spent many years working in the area of child protection. I saw first hand the damage of child sexual assault. Sexual abuse of children is rarely perpetrated by a stranger. It is committed by a trusted adult, even a parent. Without appropriate support damaged children struggle to become healthy functioning adults. Healing the broken-hearted takes time and it takes resources. The pathway to healing after child sexual assault is not easy. Margaret’s story confirms how difficult it is to trust, to move on in life, to forgive and to heal. The ‘church’ has a long way to go to redeem itself so that people can regain trust and confidence.
The Catholic church, and other churches are founded on a patriarchal system. There is no gender equality. I think it is time for major reform of these patriarchal structures. Reform is needed in the way the church exercises its leadership, its power, its authority and its structures of governance.
For a signpost of where the church should go, I look for lessons found in Biblical stories. In Matthew Chapter 23 Jesus reproves his audience as the leaders of the day wanted everything to look beautiful on the outside when inside it was full of dead peoples bones and uncleanness. There is a lot of cleaning up to do in the church. The church is called to be lumen gentium – a light to the nation. When will we see that ‘light on the hill’ – a city, a nation, set on a hill, a light that cannot be hidden.