When Is the Time To Forgive?

Irene Lagan of InsideCatholic blogs on Cardinal George’s deposition in the Chicago sex abuse settlement as reported in the Chicago Tribune.

(A)s I read the article and bits of the deposition, I felt anger and sadness. They are hard feelings, especially in situations that strike at the heart of the Church — and which are near to my own heart. So many are affected directly by abuse, and others are wounded by the wounds of others.

I realized that in this situation, the only thing to do is turn away from the anger, to leave it with Jesus Christ as often as necessary, and to make a decision to consign the offenders — including negligent Church officials — to God’s justice. Otherwise, the anger itself becomes an offender, and unwelcome guest when it is allowed to take root and fester.

I hope and pray that, as Pope Benedict urged in his homily at Nationals’ Stadium last April, we as lay people, priests and religious can individually and as communities make the hard choices necessary to create a culture of forgiveness.

This is a profoundly difficult issue. Anger is indeed a danger, and we Catholics are far from immune from its delicious allure. I believe the Twelve Steps and the Sacrament of Penance both provide models to inform us how we can forgive. They also suggest the direction some bishops might take to assist the process of forgiveness.

Cardinal George has made things very difficult for himself and for his brother bishops not for what happened forty years ago, but for his own administrative flaws in handling predator clergy two to six years ago. That bishops blundered badly in the past is old news. That today’s bishops bypass the very structures they put in place is a mark of grave hubris. This pride threatens the whole fabric of the Church, especially the relationship between the laity and the hierarchy. The bishops risk a self-induced marginalization that will see them impotent not only in dealing with wayward clergy, but in leading a unified Church when other matters batter us.

It is true that to complete the healing process victims and families must move on, once they have grieved and come to terms with loss. This is the problem with the culture’s talk-show and therapy mindset. Getting in touch with one’s feelings is important. It’s a step many people skip in childhood because of pathology in family dynamics.

You have to go back. You have to feel the feelings. But there are steps beyond that, steps that lead into healthy adulthood and integration of one’s emotional life with the more grown-up aspects of delayed gratification, sacrifice, and becoming other-centered in relationships.

The lack of a sense of sin, so often criticized in post-conciliar laity, seems evident in the episcopacy. My suggestion for Cardinal George and other bishops, would be to apply the Twelve Steps. It gives helpful, spiritual, and constructive guidance and it might begin the healing process with the faithful. Given their close association with sex addicts, especially the grooming that has taken place, it might be the healthiest and most accurate model to follow. Here they are, adapted:

1. We admitted we were powerless over our personal flaws and ecclesial shortcomings in dealing with priest predators—that our lives had become unmanageable.

2. Came to believe that God could restore us to sanity.

3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God.

4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Bishops are more than business managers of dioceses. They are called by God to give exemplary witness to Christ: not for the sake of their own holiness, but that others may see and follow that example. If they believe there is a loss of a sense of sin, perhaps example rather than preaching will effect a recovery from this so-called loss.

A culture of forgiveness must be preceded by the steps that lead up to it. There is no magical anger-b-gone pill. Forgiveness implies a relationship between the offender and the one harmed. Let’s look at how this relationship works in both the Twelve Steps and in the sacramental life. In the sacrament of penance, a penitent makes a choice to celebrate the sacrament, inspired by an awareness of personal sin (steps 1-3), conducts an examination of conscience (step 4), then confesses the sin (step 5). A sincere act of contrition follows (steps 6-7). In the classical rite, acts of satisfaction (steps 8-9) would follow. Then the penitent would receive absolution. Steps ten through twelve parallel the ongoing conversion every believer must attend to in her or his own life, the renewal of steps one through nine for the recovering addict.

Many steps are missing in this process before victims and those outraged on their behalf can forgive in a constructive way. It might be that Catholics should apply a confidence in the sacraments to this challenge before us. A culture of forgiveness is a good thing to which we can aspire. Such a culture will have to be based on more than the removal of public rancor. Before we can forgive Cardinal George and other bishops, we will have to hear what acts for which they are seeking pardon. At minimum. Acts of satisfaction will have to be done. In this case, a number of Hail Marys or Our Fathers won’t be as important as the structures of protection and the respect for these structures.

As for Cardinal George, I don’t believe he should resign in Chicago. If he were forced out, he would likely get some plum appointment in Rome. However, might another bishop or preferably a priest be installed in Chicago? The task would be to oversee the administrative aspects of uncovering predators, protecting the innocent, and possibly the legal aspects of abuse settlements. The precedent has been set recently when the Vatican appoints a co-adjutor to assist a sitting bishop in areas deemed in need of remedy. Lacking such a move from the curia, the archdiocese itself should assign a person who could carry out this role with a minimum of compromise from the grooming methods of predators, and neither beholden to the bishop or aligned to the interest groups involved.

Creating a culture of forgiveness is a community effort. Single persons may well come to reject anger before they forgive–this is certainly possible. But until the Church makes a collective effort in this matter, emotions and bureaucracy will likely remain in a chaotic state. It will take leadership to make a culture happen. Is the cardinal ready for it? Is he even aware of the need?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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5 Responses to When Is the Time To Forgive?

  1. “A culture of forgiveness” and, while we’re at it, “a culture of appreciation.”

    Glad to see your citation of the Twelve Step model. Biographers have noted that Bill Wilson, co-founder of AA was very interested in but ultimately did not become Catholic because of anti-Catholic sentiments that dominated at those times. Biographer Francis Hartigan has argued that Wilson did not want to subject the new group to possible discrimination because of his entrance into the Catholic Church. True? Who knows.

    What we do know is that while, Step One is essential, Step Zero has to happen first. Step Zero: This s**t has got to stop. Looks like too many bishops aren’t quite there yet.

  2. FrMichael says:

    “My suggestion for Cardinal George and other bishops, would be to apply the Twelve Steps.”

    My suggestion is a formal unqualified apology, followed by resignation from his see, the Presidency of the USCCB, and the College of Cardinals, and sequestering in a monastery or obscure mission of the OMI, once civil and criminal penalties are completed.

    Cardinal George’s intelligence, speaking ability, and supposed conservativism have covered up his corruption just as thoroughly as Cardinal Bernardin’s intelligence, speaking ability, and supposed progressivism covered up for his corruption.

    Who can clean up the Augean Stables of the Archdiocese of Chicago?

  3. Michael says:

    FrMichael, would you care to specify what you mean by Cardinal Bernardin’s “corruption”?

  4. FrMichael says:


    Bernardin’s neglect and/or promotion of the rampant corruption of that archdiocese: financial shenanigans, lavenderization of the seminary (which continues to this day), wayward priests (like Fr. Phlegl) not receiving correction, the rampant dissent at Loyola, etc. For allowing the local Church to become a beaten puppy to its true master, the local political machine of the Daleys, with the consequent muting of the Church’s prophetic witness against abortion and political corruption. And I’m not even getting into his role in turning the NCCB/USCC into the bureaucratic monster that it became.

  5. Michael says:

    FrMichael, how are you so familiar with the Chicago archdiocese?

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