by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
In Chapter 18 of St. Matthew’s Gospel, the disciples ask Jesus: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus responds by calling a child to stand in their midst and says: “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me” (3-5).
In the very next verses, Jesus says: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of things that cause sin! Such things must come, but woe to the one through whom they come!” (6-7)
These are incredibly powerful and challenging words from Jesus. Our Lord, when asked who is the greatest in the kingdom, pointed to a child — because of their pure trust. Children and adults who become childlike have the highest place in the heavenly kingdom.
Our Lord gave the sternest possible warning to those that harm a child and who damage or, even worse, destroy childlike trust. He described their fate in hopeless terms — doomed to inevitable death like someone thrown into the sea with a millstone.
It is cause for great shame for those bishops, priests and other representatives of the church who harmed children, robbed them of their innocence and stole their trust. They will have to stand before God to explain the inexplicable — why they chose to do great harm to innocent children. They will have to explain why they chose to wound the church, to damage the trust of the innocent and, for some, destroyed faith in a loving God.
Sexual abuse of children is horrific in any context. However, it is even more devastating if the perpetrator is a representative of the church. Sexual abuse by an ordained minister of the church creates significant obstacles for victims to seek comfort and healing from the church, the living body of Christ.
The priesthood is a call to be configured to Jesus, the innocent victim who gave his life to ransom us from sin, to minister mercy and to offer us the opportunity to share in his divine and eternal life. When someone called to be another Christ is a victimizer, it can create a wall between the victim and the real Jesus — the one from whom we should receive healing, mercy and unconditional love.
I am grateful and the church is grateful for victims of clergy sexual abuse who, with courage and persistence, brought light upon the injustice they suffered. I thank them for their desire and commitment to protect others from experiencing the harm of abuse that they know all too well.
I thank them for finding the strength to refuse to allow the perpetrator of their abuse to separate them from Jesus, for not allowing the injustice they experienced to keep them from the church, and for choosing to use wounds that have been inflicted upon them as motivation to be an instrument for change and reform in the church.
Recently, I received a letter that gives me great hope and affirms the amazing healing power of God that is possible when our community and leadership welcomes the survivor’s pain and truth.
I recognize that each abuse survivor walks his or her own unique path. As a church, we must meet survivors where they are, offering support without judgment and respecting their personal journey. Too often, people came forward and were met with rejection or disbelief. Many still live in silence fearing this response. If you have suffered harm, the letter may stir anger or frustration from your personal experience with representatives of the church. If this is so, I humbly ask you to consider allowing us another opportunity to do better.
I share, not assuming this is everyone’s path, but so it might benefit others to hear these words:
Dear Catholic Church,
I have loved you my whole life and have always been faithful to you. You hurt my heart very deeply, and you hurt my family very deeply too. Still I love you and remain faithful to you.
Recently, I attended a Mass of atonement for those who have been hurt by sexual abuse and family and friends who have been hurt. It was beautiful. The bishop apologized for the way the church has treated victims and their families. He humbly apologized for his own failures too.
I have attended several of these Masses and have been touched by the sincerity and humility of these bishops and priests. I have personally been apologized to by four bishops and countless priests. These men are good and holy men. They have listened to my pain, comforted me and helped me to heal. They have given me advocates who have been compassionate and loving in so many ways. I have been crushed but also lifted up and out of a dark place.
It’s time for me to say I forgive those in the church who have hurt me. You, my church, are doing for me and many others what Christ has called you to do. Ask forgiveness.
I am so grateful for your humility and for your beautiful efforts to help me heal. Your love is real and sincere. I accept your apology and I forgive you.
I hope as one of your members to help others who are still struggling to find peace and healing.
May God bless you for doing the right thing. Continue to help so many who are still hurting. Just love them the way you have shown love to me.
Your ever faithful child.
I am very grateful for those who pray for healing for victims and the church; for those who help with Virtus training for employees and volunteers; for those who work to make our parishes, schools and ministries safe harbors where all who enter are treated with respect and protected from harm; for the Independent Review Board that advises me on how to respond to allegations of abuse in a manner that treats all parties involved with respect and compassion and helps to discern truth so that the church can truly be a vessel of mercy, healing and love; and for the staff of our office for protection and care that helps our church respond to those who have been harmed. By implementing a victim-centered approach, they seek to bring healing and restoration.
In the Mass, we touch Calvary and the great injustice that Jesus suffered because of our sins. Jesus, the totally innocent one, by immersing himself in our humanity and becoming a victim of human cruelty and a gross miscarriage of justice, united himself by a special bond with all victims. Jesus knows what it is like to be a victim of religious authorities.
Just as blood and water gushed forth from the pierced side of Jesus giving life to the church and being the source of the life-giving sacraments of baptism and Eucharist, we pray that in our encounter of the life-giving wounds of Jesus, we will be inspired to become a surging torrent of justice and a renewing stream of mercy and love.
As the archbishop, I offer my sincere and heartfelt apology to those who have been harmed by representatives of the church. I beg forgiveness for ways that I have failed to be a shepherd of God’s people who lays down his life to protect the flock.
Jesus entrusted the church to the care of the apostles. In the Gospels, the apostles reveal their own weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Judas betrayed Our Lord. Peter denied knowing Jesus. Nine of the other ten apostles abandoned Jesus on Good Friday.
Despite their weaknesses, on Easter night, when their denial and abandonment were fresh in their minds, Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit upon them and empowered them to be the earthen vessels Our Lord had chosen to be his instruments in bringing his mercy and love to others.
Jesus continues to choose as successors of the apostles weak human vessels. In part, Jesus prefers to use the weak and low-born so that it is clear the ministry of the church is not of human origin, but it is the Holy Spirit working through flawed human beings.
We must come to the Lord asking him to use us in our weakness to be his instruments of grace. We ask especially that he help those who have suffered abuse to know that they are particularly close to Jesus, who also was an innocent victim. We beg the Lord to do what only he can do to bring healing, peace, hope and joy to their hearts.