Reflection on a Presentation given by Fr Jim Corkery SJ “Towards a Theology of Safeguarding “, July 2021
“Does there now need to be a re-examination of the theology of salvation, in the light of the experience of survivors of sexual abuse who did not sin but who were sinned against”?
The NBSCCCI (National Board for Safeguarding Children Catholic Church Ireland) continues to explore a Theology of Safeguarding through a series of presentations by various theologians, scripture scholars and ethicists.
Fr Jim Corkery SJ is an Irish Jesuit who taught systematic theology at Milltown Institute of Theology and Philosophy in Dublin for 20 years. He is now a professor in the departments of Fundamental and Dogmatic Theology at the Gregorian at Rome.
Fr Jim Corkery presents us with a question, “Does there now need to be a re-examination of the theology of salvation in the light of the experience of survivors of sexual abuse who did not sin but who were sinned against”? And the most important words are: “who did not sin but were sinned against”, Why? Because often, when there is talk about salvation, the idea that is present is; salvation from sin. But survivors of child sexual abuse have not sinned. They have been sinned against and their lives ruined by evil and depraved members of the clergy and the religious. So emphasising that the heart of salvation is Jesus dying for our sins is not helpful for them because in the entire traumatic experience of their sexual abuse, they are not sinners at all. For survivors of child sexual abuse, the Jesus who saves is in solidarity with them, like them, beside them; because just as they, who are entirely innocent, have suffered abuse, so has he. Jesus knows their pain.
Salvation is meant to be imminent, when we think of all the people that Jesus encountered in the Gospels, they were not made to wait. He answered them through healing, compassion and love. Jesus stood beside them in their pain.
People who have been sexually abused by clergy and religious have experienced the opposite of salvation. For them the Church ceases to be a place where salvation is experienced and it becomes, instead, a place of the opposite; of darkness, evil, of what might be called “un-salvation”. Their experience of having been sexually abused by clergy and religious pushes them to the edge of the life of the Church. It often pushes them outside of what should have been for them, the “community of salvation”.
Jesus, in the salvation he brings, wants, to reach those who have been abused and violated with his healing love and tender heart. Jesus recognises that the sexually abused children were robbed of being safe in the community of believers, the community of salvation.
Salvation is fullness of life. For survivors this has to include life also at the heart of the Church. The community of salvation, where they have been hurt but must not be hurt again by clergy and religious who engage in denial, minimisation, institutional amnesia, and total non-acceptance of their part in the history of child sexual abuse by their fellow colleagues.
The Church through its theology must speak of salvation in the light of survivor’s experiences. Central to the theological understanding of salvation is what is called divinization. This means receiving a share in the very life of God, something that Christians are already given in baptism. There is a special poignancy in the suffering of the victims/survivors of child sexual abuse. Jesus the innocent lamb who was abused is tenderly close to these innocent lambs, who suffered sexual abuse at the hands of depraved clergy. Jesus knows and abhors their suffering. They are especially close to Him as he knows their complete innocence, as he himself was innocent.
There is a “doing dimension” to the gift of divinization also. Although Jesus he alone saves, he does not save alone. Jesus involves others in his work of saving, and re-including those pushed by clerical child sexual abuse to the edges of the Church. Survivors through their unique experiences can facilitate the saving and the re-including of other abused persons, whose pain they know best.
Every person in the Church, bishops, religious superiors, missionaries, and especially the superiors of abusers, are asked to be involved, today, in this salvific work of Jesus Christ. But no one is more effective in it than those who themselves have been sexually abused because like Jesus they know the pain involved. Thus, their receiving salvation can involve them in bringing salvation to others because they do this with Jesus, who alone saves, but who never saves alone. Jesus needs their help.
Fr Jim Corkery has set out a way forward to begin a new era of theological re-imagining what salvation is for people who suffered from clerical child sexual abuse. He clearly envisages a new understanding of how salvation can be achieved. It is a partnership between Jesus who alone saves but who never saves alone. There is an invitation to re-include the survivors to be at the heart of creating a church where salvation will be for all.
There has to be salvation now in the sense that we try to imitate Jesus in our reaching out, in our trying to heal, in our compassion. We must always remember that the sin of clerical child sexual abuse is not just a series of failures. It is inflicting evil and gross acts on the innocent. It is a rejection of God’s love. It damages not only the child that is sexually abused but it also damages the relationship with God. The sexual abuse of children by Clergy and Religious is an act borne of darkness and evil which we can call “un-salvation”.
Child sexual abuse committed by Clergy and Religious denies the child’s worth. It distorts the meaning of priesthood. It is the epitome of Satan’s work. However, we know that while Satan may be at work in this world through some members of the Clergy and Religious who fail to support and uphold good Safeguarding Policies and Practices, he is nevertheless a defeated enemy.
We can still have hope: through Jesus’ death on the cross, God has freely provided redemption for all people. This redemption includes healing for the sexually abused and forgiveness for the abusers if they seek real forgiveness and are encouraged by their colleagues to do so. Instead of those colleagues ignoring the criminal acts they have inflicted upon innocent children (Is 53:5; Mt 26:28; Heb 9:14). We know that Jesus will come again as a judge and when he comes, Satan’s power will be finally destroyed and there will be a new heaven and a new earth with no more death or mourning or crying or pain or child sexual abuse committed by members of the clergy and the religious or any other person in society (Rev 21:4)
“Safeguarding the rights of others is the most noble and beautiful end of a human being.” Khalil Gibran
Clerical Child sexual abusers cannot live with the truth: survivors of that child sexual abuse cannot live without it. The truth won’t go away. Truth will outlast any campaigns mounted against it, no matter how mighty, clever, or long. Truth is invincible. Truth will prevail and the truth will set us all free.
Denis C Hartnett mhm
Mill Hill Missionaries