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Commentary » International

Addressing child abuse: a challenge and an opportunity

Humiliation can be seen as a gift that brings reform

Addressing child abuse: a challenge and an opportunity
Fr Michael Kelly, Bangkok International

February 10, 2014

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As we have seen in the last week, when an institution such as the Vatican is held to be behaving reprehensibly in the matter of the sexual abuse of children, it becomes a global media event.

Because of its global reach, the Vatican is an easy global target. Having a centralized authority system, structures to which complainants can go, legal liability for a corporate duty of care and the ability to meet compensation payments resulting from legal proceedings, the Church offers a “perfect storm” for sexual abuse complaints and their settlement.

However, there is no point in Catholics pleading that they are being targeted by the media and are the sad victims of a vendetta, as some Church leaders around the world have tried to claim.

The Church aims to be a responsible agent of care but has demonstrably failed to deliver, and so it is responsible.

The extent of child sex abuse by lay, clerical and religious ministers and the demonstration of the ineptitude and incompetence to address it over a long period have brought the People of God to a tipping point.

This is a time of profound humiliation and dismay which must be addressed at multiple levels – the way the Church is transparent in its governance, the way people are prepared and authorized for ministry, the way in which warped Catholic readings of sex, women and power have contributed to this catastrophe.

And then there is the challenge to us ordinary pilgrims along the way, people who have taken the journey of faith as companions of Jesus, only to discover that we are part of a much more disturbed, misbehaving and mismanaged community than we imagined.

What attitude might we take at this tipping point? Personally, I find a lot of help from the heritage of a spirituality formed in and growing from the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius Loyola.

In his Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius invites anyone seeking a deeper encounter with God to consider and pray for what he calls The Third Degree of Humility, the gift of identification with Jesus in his dereliction, in the abuse and derision he experienced in his Passion.

This can sound like masochism if it’s not understood as a gift from God that indeed brings pain, but also freedom and peace, as his crucifixion did finally to Jesus.

We need not go looking for or inventing events in our lives that can allow us into the heart of Jesus in his derelict state. They come our way uninvited on a regular basis when, for example, misunderstanding, betrayal or envy come unbidden. These are moments when a deeper unity with our Savior is there if we can accept them.

We can deny them, dance around them or even acknowledge them while wishing they would go away. Most of us do that most of the time to humiliation and the opportunity it offers. But embracing humiliation as a gift and an opportunity is the first sign that the Spirit is at work in and among us.

Where might the Spirit take us if we were to embrace what is happening in and to our community of faith, shamed by the deeds, misdeeds and inaction of many, including those entrusted with leadership? We will be led to where the Spirit always takes us: to the foot of the Cross where we share in the surrender of that prototype of all disciples, Mary the mother of Jesus, in her surrender into the hands of the living God. And then we come by God’s grace to let God be God.

This is a time of opportunity for Catholics to face our failure as followers of Jesus and bring about needed reform. But this is also an opportunity to move beyond the externals of faith and accept this time as a moment of grace.

Fr Michael Kelly is the executive director of

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