As new revelations of clergy sexual abuse of minors are made the question posed to Catholics is — what should one do? Many suggestions can be made, but it is becoming increasingly apparent that it is necessary to turn to the Lord in prayer and fasting first. This should happen before, during and after any inquiries or royal commissions on abuse. It should happen whatever steps
of redress or apology or reform are decided upon or imposed from without.
Such a turning to the Lord in prayer and fasting can take the shape of a public liturgy. Dunedin Bishop Michael Dooley has said he is “very interested” in there being a future liturgical gathering to acknowledge the victims of clergy sexual abuse and the Church’s failure to handle the issue adequately. He indicated earlier this month that plans would “evolve over the next few weeks”.
There are many examples overseas to which he, and bishops in other New Zealand dioceses, can look. In Oakland in 2004, Bishop Allen Vigneron led a series of services which took place in each parish in that diocese in which an abuser priest had harmed minors, and by extension their families and communities. At the first such service, the bishop entered the church by a side door, not by the main aisle, and took a seat amongst the
congregation. Victims were moved by the fact that this took place in their home parishes.
The bishop reportedly delivered a personal apology to each survivor present. In 2016, then-Archbishop Vigneron led a “Mass for Pardon” at the cathedral in Detroit. There, the archbishop and auxiliary bishops prostrated themselves before the altar. That service broadened the theme, offering repentance for Church wrongdoing in areas of sex abuse, racism, being overly bureaucratic, being cold and unwelcoming generally and others. He
followed the model of the apology for the sins of the Church made by St John Paul II in 2000.
In Sydney earlier this year, in the wake of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Archbishop Anthony Fisher led a “Service of Prayer of Forgiveness and Reparation for All People Affected by Abuse Within the Church”. Survivors of abuse who felt able to attend were warmly welcomed to do so.
The liturgy was based on the sorrowful mysteries of the rosary, with each decade having its own abuse-related reflection. For instance, in the first mystery, the Agony in the Garden, the disciples being asleep while the Lord suffered was linked to the Church not listening
to victims, and its leaders exercising a “Pilate-like” refusal to respond.
In the fourth mystery, the carriage of the cross which was not his own by Simon of Cyrene was linked to the inheriting by the present generation of Christians of the shame, loss of credibility, and the responsibility for the harms done, often decades ago but which still
affect victims to this day.
“They must now ensure cultural and institutional change to our Church to proof it against this ever happening again,” Archbishop Fisher prayed. “That will require lasting change in our patterns of thought and behaviour, often long-ingrained, even unconscious. There is no silver bullet, no easy answer to all this. But only by self-examination and rededication
to Gospel service will we again deserve people’s trust,” he added.
It was hoped that by God’s grace, the prompting of the community, and the input of survivors, the Church could emerge purified, humbler, more compassionate.
Now if such liturgies are the only thing the Church does in response to the scandals, then they can rightly be condemned as mere lip service. Having such liturgies is sure to draw such accusations under any circumstances, but that is part of taking up the cross on this issue.
But if such liturgies, and the prayer and fasting which precede and follow from them, are the first, and ongoing underpinning of all other action in this area, then that
is not only desirable but essential, no matter how much public scorn it attracts.
Such liturgies also express solidarity with innocent victims of abuse, while praying for their healing and healing for a contaminated Church.
It is time that the Church in New Zealand did more in this regard than the occasional prayer of the faithful at Mass. We look forward to Bishop Dooley getting the ball rolling.