| |

Mission in Ministry: Reflection on Presentation by Una Allen, Coordinator of Towards Peace

Towards a Theology of Safeguarding: How can (an understanding of) Pastoral Theology inform action to heal the spiritual damage caused by clerical abuse?

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.

Una Allen is the current Coordinator of Towards Peace, the spiritual support service set up by the Irish Church in 2014. Una has a background in Social Science, Spiritual Direction and a Masters in Pastoral Theology. She worked for over thirty years in the Probation Service. Una has taught Spirituality and Culture both in Galway and Dublin. She is a married woman with four children.

Una begins her presentation by stating that ‘soul murder’ is a term which is often used to describe the effects of sexual abuse, especially when perpetrated by clergy and religious. The Child Sexual Abuse committed by depraved members of the clergy, some of our own members included strikes at the very heart of our belief and connection to a loving God. The sexual abuse committed not only traumatises individuals but whole communities. The spiritual injury associated with religious sexual abuse has the capacity to destroy faith and erode belief in God. It shatters spirituality and leads to loss of purpose in life both for the individual and the community.

The question naturally arises then, “Can the soul recover?” Many survivors express a desire to reconnect to the God from whom they felt were so cruelly severed through the depraved actions of clergy and religious. A Pastoral theology can begin to heal the wounds caused by clerical child sexual abuse.

Thomas Merton taught that no matter how damaged any person is by clerical sexual abuse , there is within that person an inner core, a hidden centre of ourselves that remains invincibly established in God as a mysterious Presence, as a life that is at once God’s and our own. Pastoral Theology provides the means to begin a process of healing because if we do not transform our pain, we will almost inevitably transmit it.

Theology is often defined as faith seeking understanding in the context of human experience. Theology really is figuring out how to bring faith and life together. Pastoral Theology is trying to facilitate a way of spiritually healing a broken life, an abused life at the hands of the clergy and religious. It is trying to reach out by simply bringing life to faith and faith to life.

Pastoral Theology bridges the relationship between Church and Society. Ultimately it is about growth, through a pastoral approach a person may be assisted to grow personally, relationally and spiritually in a way that attempts to rehabilitate a shattered spirituality, a robbed life, a murdered soul. Pastoral Theology has the capacity to journey with people who are broken. Pastoral Theology tries to bring together theory and practice. It is concerned with every aspect of a person. It is never static but evolves in the wounds of those damaged by sexual abuse. Pastoral Theology is seeking to reinterpret traditions in a manner that assists healing, corrects distortions, challenges denial and minimisation of child sexual abuse by individuals within religious institutions and societies.

People who have experienced sexual abuse at the hands of clerics and religious struggle in their faith, they have a sense of rejection by a Church who betrayed them, there is deep mistrust, and most of all a sense of abandonment by God. Where was God when I was being abused as a small child? Does God nor care about me? Is there a loving God? These questions will not be answered in counselling alone but need to be understood in the realm of true pastoral care.

In all aspects of pastoral theology the notion of theological reflection is paramount, in prayer and reflection we can look at our past in a positive way. When the disciples travelled on the road to Emmaus, they were accompanied by Jesus who listened to them patiently, he heard their hurt, their anger; Jesus stays with them. The story illustrates for us that healing is never about a magic transformation. We as missionaries, religious, members of the Church must all go through a healing process; together we must first face, listen, share and process the wounds of the past before we can begin to heal. The wounds of the past, the wounds of child sexual abuse committed by some clergy and religious have to be integrated into the risen Christ, his wounds don’t disappear in his resurrection they are integrated.

The time has come for our Church to be transformed into a place where children are safe, but it must also be transformed into an honoured and privileged place of healing for survivors. It must be transformed into a place where survivors, with all their reticence, their wariness, and with all their anger and resentment towards the Church, can genuinely come to feel that the Church is a place where they will encounter healing. This healing also needs to extend to the wounded, and many would say fearful Church in need of understanding and healing. All the good clergy and religious are also wounded and suffer in silence. A Pastoral Theological approach can provide a way forward in responding to all those who have been wounded by abuse. Pastoral theology teaches us to be able to suffer with those who are hurting and to companion those who seek hope in a loving God. The healing of the Church comes through how the Church works to heal survivors. There is no place in that process for institutional clerical group think or clergy who minimize the suffering endured by victims of child sexual abuse perpetrated by some of their own colleagues.


The pastoral approach outlined by Una Allen’s presentation offers us a holistic possibility of reaching out to survivors and victims of child sexual abuse committed by clergy and religious. Pastoral theology can help in the formulation of a Theology of Safeguarding through the rawness of the experiences of those abused. However, we should never allow “spiritual amnesia” to be part of our lives where we ignore the historical and the continuing sexual abuse of children. We need to continually avoid “false memory” where a culture of denial existed and still exists among a cohort of clergy and religious, even among some of our own members.

Thank God we are now living in a time when we see the fulfilment of Jesus words: “There is nothing now hidden in the dark which will not be brought to light” (Mark 4:22). The key to a pastoral theological approach within a theology of safeguarding is humility, without humility we will be unable to move forward in a positive way. Humility will be and is the source of our freedom and way ahead as a Church trying to heal. Humility is the cornerstone rejected by the Church many years ago and replaced by an institutional arrogance that facilitated the destruction of many innocent lives.

Saint Theresa of Avila defined humility as “living in the truth”. We live in truth with our past through avoiding spiritual amnesia and false memory syndrome. We live in truth by acknowledging the damage of child sexual abuse committed and perpetrated by depraved members of the clergy and religious. We live with the truth when we stop covering up crimes against children. We live with the truth when we de-institutionalise our minds, our hearts and our souls and embrace the great gift of humility.

Socrates believed that humility must include accurate self-knowledge that avoids distortion and extremes. A Theology of Safeguarding can be born through humility if we avoid distortion and extremes. Humility is the only possibility of growing in an understanding of a Theology of Safeguarding. As individuals within the Church we can practice humility and imbue our institutional church with a spirituality of humility.

Let us remember the words of the gospel: “He who is greatest among you shall be your servant; whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:11-12).

We should not fear change; it is the nature of our missionary Church. Change and reform is in the very nature of a church that is called to be missionary. To live is to change, and to change often is to become more perfect. Everything needs to change to stay the same. We as people created in the image and likeness of God are not static, we are dynamic; we are the possible guarantee of our future, a future of healing and growth, a future of new beginnings where children may be safe as God’s creation in a Theology of Safeguarding.

Now is the time for reflection and listening as the saying goes; “When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen you may learn something new”.

Denis C Hartnett mhm

Mill Hill Missionaries

Knock Shrine-Ireland

Leave a Reply