We Stand with Victims

Here is the full text of Father Hage's homily on sexual assault in the Church:

October is our annual Respect Life month in the Catholic Church.  It is during this month that we raise awareness of violations against the sanctity of human life that occur daily in our culture.  We cover topics such as abortion, euthanasia, end of life issues, the death penalty, and even contraception.  We make a concerted effort to let the culture know that we are a people who will advocate for the protection of human life from the moment of conception until natural death.  We renew our promise to be the voice for the voiceless.  Some of these things can put us in a strange light as they can be difficult topics to talk about in the public forum, but we are always convinced time and again that they are worth the personal discomfort that arises when speaking up and speaking out.  The one issue, I believe, that seems to be strangely missing from our Catholic vocabulary during this Respect Life month is sexual assault.

Not once have I found literature produced during this Respect Life month outlining the “Church's teaching on sexual violence, coercion or exploitation, or warning perpetrators of its temporal and spiritual repercussions.”[1]  We have no problem clearly articulating our teaching on abortion or euthanasia as well as passionately communicating the spiritual repercussions of those actions.  But I find it odd that the same level of attention is not spent on the plague of sexual assault in our culture.  Current statistics show that one out of every four women and one out of every six men have been sexually assaulted.  Which means that as I look out into the congregation today, I am looking into the faces of women and men who know first-hand what I am talking about.  Sexual assault is a scourge in our time, and it is the sin we are desperately praying our Church will come to terms with in the immediate future. 

I want to be very clear about what the Catholic stance is on sexual assault.  Sexual assault, if deliberately perpetrated, is a mortal sin simply because it is grave matter by definition and can only ever be conducted by the perpetrator (unless he or she is suffering from a genuine mental disorder) with full consent. There is really little gray area on this one.  It is wrong for the same reason that other grave sins like torture or domestic violence are wrong: it reduces human beings, who are infinitely precious in God's sight, to mere instruments for the offender's own gratification. It is an assertion of a grotesque lie—that the victims are without worth or significance, who may be treated as though their wishes, their dignity and even their ownership of their own bodies, simply do not matter. This is the precise opposite of what we as Christians believe to be true about the very essence of the human person.  The perpetrators of sexual assault, if unrepentant and showing no signs of sincere contrition before death, will be eternally cut off from the life of God by their own willful decision to choose radical evil over good.  I usually do not speak in “fire and brimstone” terms, but I do not know how else to communicate the gravity of the matter at hand. 

I think as “Respect Life” people, we should do all we can to pray for and advocate on behalf of victims of sexual assault.  Why?  Because it is our duty.  It is the authentic expression of our Faith.  Just as much as Respect Life advocates will subscribe to a “seamless garment” mentality that treats all Respect Life issues as equal in importance and demanding equal attention, so too I believe sexual assault is an issue that can no longer be ignored as we continue to survey the coarse fabric of this “seamless garment”.  To not include sexual assault on the list of the Respect Life issues of the day is to cease to be a Pro-Life advocate. 

After speaking with a victim of clergy sexual assault, I've learned that one of the great pains victims experience is the isolation they are met with when they make their victimhood public.  People too often shy away from them as if they were modern-day lepers, people with some sort of highly contagious terminal disease.  If we find ourselves avoiding conversations and personal contact with victims of sexual assault, then we are still in need of forgiveness and reconciliation that can only be offered through the Sacrament.  I believe this mentality to steer clear of victims is not from God and is in need of intense purification and redemption.  Victims are not the problem.  The culture and the structures that allow perpetrators to commit these crimes repeatedly without due consequence is the problem, and we need to be rid of it.  The scandal we are really talking about here is the violation of the human body by an action that seriously offends the sacred dignity of the person.  If such a scandal occurs in the context of a power differential between two individuals, then the sin of sexual assault is intimately connected to the gross misuse of power and authority.

So what is our response as Catholics to the reality of the abuse of power and authority in our midst?  Servant-leadership.  We hear Jesus say in the Gospel today, “You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt.  But it shall not be so among you.  Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.  For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  The most authentic expression of power and authority for the Catholic is servant-leadership.  If you ever question this, just spend some time gazing upon a crucifix where we see how our King exercised his royal power and authority.  The only appropriate image then for a person of authority in the Church’s power structure is servus servorum Dei, the servant of the servants of God.  I believe that this scandal, in God’s providence, will help our leadership return to this fundamental truth, and this truth will remind our leadership that the most appropriate response to scandal is not to defend the reputation of the institution, but to defend the “little ones”.

Jesus also says in Mark 9:40, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”  I do not see victims of clergy sexual assault as somehow being against the Church.  I see them as advocating for necessary change within the Church.  We should see them as prophets and faithful witnesses constantly calling us to deeper conversion and, indeed, a true metanoia that we must undergo if we are to be saved.  This conversion requires sincere repentance among the members of the clergy as well as concrete action from the laity.  It is easy to understand why people of goodwill, reading the headlines, feel as though they just want to throw up their hands and walk away, but it is much more heroic to stay and demand change.  Advocate for the victims.  Let our parishes be safe places where victims can find the rest, the acceptance, and the sacred dignity that they deserve.  Remember, as living members of the Body of Christ they are and will ever remain our sisters and brothers in Christ. 

Another question that lingers in the Catholic consciousness is what to do with those who scandalize the faithful.  Jesus gives a threefold response, “cut it off, cut it off, pluck it out.”  St. John Chrysostom, a fourth century bishop, said in response to Jesus’ words, “[S]evering bodily limbs signifies the amputation of intimate friends.  When close companions drag Christians away from holiness, they must be cut away.  It is better for us to enter heaven without them than to maintain their company in everlasting misery.”  This requires all Catholics, laity and clergy, to speak up when friends still hold onto a mentality that allows for silence in the face of sexual assault and violence.  This requires the Church’s leadership to critically evaluate their own conscience to see whether or not they unknowingly (or knowingly) contributed to someone’s victimization.  This should call us to vigilance as well as courage to speak (for fear of falling into the classic sin of omission).  What I am thinking of is a Church-wide examination of conscience that will allow us to become more self-aware of our faults in order to bring them openly before the Lord and before society.  The only appropriate cry after any sincere examination of conscience is mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, and may I say while striking our chest and wailing aloud.

For those of us who have friends who still maintain the position that somehow victims speaking out against the crimes of the clergy are in some way against the Church, then those are friends who, as disciples, we may need, with love and gentleness but with steadfastness just the same, to seriously challenge and confront.  This scandal is not something that we should hope will just go away because to do so would be to fall into the sin of presumption.  There is no more dangerous sin than the one we do not own.  This scandal is not only an important lesson for the Church, but for society at large that sexual assault can and will no longer be tolerated.  Especially for those who call themselves “Catholic” and who sincerely advocate for all Respect Life issues, sexual assault is one issue that can no longer be ignored in our Pro-Life advocacy.  If we, as Catholic Christians, are committed to protecting all life from the moment of conception until natural death, then are not the victims of sexual assault people who have had their right to life grievously violated?  It goes without saying that sexual assault inflicts deep and abiding wounds that do not go away in a person’s lifetime.  I pray that we will no longer be silent, but give a voice to those who have been voiceless for far too long.  For their cries “have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts” and they demand justice.



[1] R.M. Douglas, Bishop's views on sex abuse are 'embedded in the structure of the church', Syracuse Post-Standard Op-Ed

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