Do you have a favorite restaurant that you enjoy for good food and drink, friendly service and a relaxed environment? Close your eyes for a moment and visualize yourself there. Find it enjoyable? I hope so. Now, eyes still closed, picture what happens when you observe that a diner at the next table is red-faced, open mouthed and trying to say something. But no sound is coming out. They grab for their throat but whatever is stuck prevents communication. They stand up and wave to no avail. You see fear and embarrassment in their eyes. They wish they were anywhere but here at this moment suffering from this blockage. You understand that they are literally choking to death! Do you think that they want any help at this moment? Will you assist them? Are you aware that their perilous situation may cause them to become angry and direct it at anyone who comes to help?
What face do you put on the person suffering? Are they old or young, male or female, uniformed or casually dressed? Try imagining the face of a Roman Catholic Bishop on this breathless victim. Whether you live in the US, Canada, Australia, Ireland, or Germany, Catholic Bishops have offered a multitude of explanations for the causes of clergy sexual abuse of youth in recent years while ignoring critical others. They have insisted that the abuse problem is over and that is was the fault of merely a few ordained who are no longer present. They indicate the size of remedial programs they initiated and demand of ministers, settle billions of dollars and triumphantly proclaim that the institutional Church has done more for the safety of children than anyone.
However, each victim/survivor who tells their tragic story undercuts their “Bishop-talk”. And Church legal response short circuits pastoral healing. Ignoring real human victims in this manner costs credibility. Are we witnessing the public suffering of a group of incompetent leaders, formerly respected sources of moral authority, reduced to choking on their own words? What is stuck in their throats that defies belief? Is it a confession that past exercise of power by Church leaders overrode care of children? Is it an inability to admit error and fully reconcile?
The current story of the Irish hierarchy (with four resigned Bishops and the balance each getting seven minutes to converse with the Pope) shows just how much trouble was present in yet another country. Deferral, dithering, and dishonesty by those in power, including failure to be open, accountable and transparent about accusations not dealt with in a timely manner, neither in ways dictated by Canon Law nor by civil law, nor in a manner common to responsible adults who truly care for children is choking our Church. And are you surprised when the perfection sought by many clergymen reveals denial, embarrassment and even anger at anyone without a collar who tries to put their arms around this Church issue? Where is the healing nature of a Christian called to love and to tend the wounds of still suffering youth within now grown adults? Where is the institutional responsibility of the adult leader to study a problem to assure that any solution he develops truly eliminates a problem rather than merely deflects criticism while protecting those guilty of serious error?
Let’s return to your favorite restaurant. Close you eyes again. How do you see the choking person now? Do you understand that they need help, right now? Will you stand up, regardless of what others do, and declare the truth of the situation? Will you attentively listen to the stories of victim/survivors as your part in their healing process, especially if you have failed to do so in the past? And if you don’t know how to perform a Heimlich, please give your neighbor some sound blows, between their shoulder blades, to help them cough up the blockage? Do you not see this person as your neighbor, a neighbor truly in need of a helpful application of your hands, to allow them to breathe again and fully come to life? The Body of Christ needs all of its faithful voices speaking truth and all its faithful ears listening patiently to heal the many wounds present.
John Marshall Lee