There has been a remarkable shift in the reporting on the Church in Flanders. Church sexual abuse, which was receiving most of the attention some weeks ago, seems to have faded away. Discussions about statements made by our Archbishop have taken the center stage – statements about AIDS as immanent justice in response to promiscuity, about the treatment of old priests guilty of pedophilia, about the correct rules governing liturgy and the proper place and role of priests in liturgical celebrations. Not so long ago the focus was on the victims of Church sexual abuse, now discussions about Church ordering and the special place of hierarchical representatives of the Church have taken center stage. Some people even raise questions about who is and who is not a real catholic. In the current controversies, I miss the voices of the victims of sexual abuse: what do they think about the ongoing discussions?
When I remember these voices, as I heard them some weeks ago, several of their concerns come to the surface, concerns we should keep in mind today. (1) The need to continue to tell and to listen to the stories of those victims, how their lives have been ruined and how their wounds and pain still require healing, even after many years. (2) The call for justice: individual perpetrators should be confronted with their victims and evil acts in ways that promote the healing, first of the victims, then of the perpetrators themselves and, ultimately, also of communities that have remained silent in the face of such evil. (3) The assurance that in the future such sexual abuse will not be tolerated and that adequate measures will be taken to ensure that it will not be repeated. (4) The call to unmask and to reform hierarchical structures and institutions that have systematically covered up the evil of sexual abuse or have failed to respond adequately to the suffering of the victims. (5) The hope that a broad societal public debate will become possible, in which not only the Church, but also the larger society that has allowed the evil of child abuse to take place, be addressed.
Are these concerns still voiced? Are they still heard?
As painful as the disappearance of the voices of the direct victims of Church sexual abuse, is the fact that in the current inner ecclesial controversies much energy is diverted away from the Church’s core business: embodying God’s commitment to the many victims, who are suffering in today’s world and who, as they reveal the crucified Christ, are our real guides. In that commitment, expressed in prayer, in liturgy and sacraments, in theology as well as in concrete action, God touches our innermost spiritual being. I was reminded of this when reflecting on the film “Illégal” and even more powerfully when, through friends in the Jesuit Refugee Service, I hear about the fate and suffering of concrete refugees and migrants, people with a name and a face. I am troubled by the fact that in today’s controversies these needy fellow human beings and the causes of their suffering, are not our central focus, while our minds are kept busy with arguments about the right proportion of altar boys and girls, about whether or not lay people are allowed to deliver a homily during mass and about who is and is not a true catholic.
I am left wondering: are our priorities as they should be?