by Ricardo da Silva SJ
“I was part of the problem, I caused this, and I apologise to you.”
Reportedly, these were the words of Pope Francis this past weekend at a meeting with three of the survivors of alleged abuse by a Chilean priest. The survivors issued a statement saying that the pope had personally apologised to each of them for not having taken their allegations seriously and for appearing to have shirked his responsibility to them.
As I considered the courage of these three survivors to speak out, with the pope’s words whirling round in my head, a mixture of feelings flooded me.
I was angry that this whole situation plagues our church over-and- over, seething with rage over the suffering and pain caused by abuse and that this had not initially been acknowledged. I thought of the all-too- many others still crippled in their silence – too afraid to speak – perhaps still too ashamed to add their voice to those crying #metoo. How could we do this to them?
But, there was another feeling that came through strongly. I wondered whether it was my attempt to put a gloss over the issue and avoid facing its bare cruelty. Was I simply putting a plaster on a still-gushing wound? But, my feelings were confirmed as I read the testimony of the survivors and I realised that my mixed feelings were legitimate and not to be ignored.
My anger was blended with a strong hope and a reassuring belief as I read of Pope Francis’ apology to the victims. It seemed very real and sincere. There was no attempt to put a gloss on the tragic lived experience of those who had suffered abuse. There was no denial of the hard truth and no glib attempt to move on. Instead, the Pope recognised what had happened and said “sorry” to each one, in his own name and in that of the Church, admitting full guilt and asking pardon. So, you might ask, why was this a sign of hope for me?
I think it has something to do with the fact that we have grown unaccustomed to this level of openness and vulnerability between people – even less so from prominent public figures and politicians. And, it is refreshing to see this and to hear of a true experience of reconciliation such as I believe this was. Pope Francis recognised that his initial response had been inappropriate and misinformed, admitted this openly and asked for forgiveness.
True reconciliation is a process. It is not a warm-feeling-bear-hug that will make everything better, as we so often expect it to be. It comes when all involved are able to admit the wrong done and acknowledge that the pain wrought can never be erased. When they know that there are – there need to be – consequences for heinous actions. And, that even with this pain they are still able to come together.
Reconciliation is knowing that I’ve done wrong to another and they have still chosen to forgive me.
And, yes, only then are we able to move on in a real way.