Can Forgiveness Help Heal a Hurting Church?

“Love is the greatest strength of the powerless . . . Love is all-powerful and will even overcome hatred. And only love can do this!”
― Václav Havel

Forgiveness is a great wellspring of personal healing. It can repair shattered relationships. It restores interior freedom to the one who has been hurt, and empowers victims of crime and abuse to recover the dignity and agency they were stripped of by the offender.

Since forgiveness restores interior freedom in an individual, can that somehow get bumped up to a more macro level? Is there a way to apply this to the healing of not just an individual, but a community? Can forgiveness help heal a hurting Church?

Catholics are certainly not indifferent to the Church’s continuing struggle to be free of the scourge of sexual abuse in our midst. To be sure, in recent decades Church leaders have undertaken a herculean effort to transform a culture within the institutional Church that too often hid the crimes of abusers, wittingly or unwittingly enabled their abuse, and treated victims as litigants, not as hurting sons and daughters. Some of that has begun to change, but there is still a long, long way to go. It begins with a commitment to transparency on the part of the Church’s hierarchy, and a determination not only that perpetrators be brought to justice whenever possible, but a readiness to accompany survivors of abuse for the long haul.

Every instance of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church — whether perpetrated by a priest, religious, or lay person — like detonating a bomb, has a devastating blast radius. Beyond the immediate victim, it devastates parents, siblings, and friends of both victim and perpetrator.

The sexual abuse crisis has also deeply impacted Catholics in the pew. And beyond the scandal and harm perpetrated by priest abusers who have lived double lives, the Church has been deeply wounded by the scandal of the Church’s leadership whose approach for decades, if not centuries, has been to hide the reality — in the name of “not causing further scandal.”

The betrayal and anger experienced by the Catholic faithful hit a boiling point with revelations of the sickening rise to power of Theodore McCarrick and the blind eye turned by so many who had reason to suspect, or worse had positive knowledge of, his sexual predations.

In the wake of the McCarrick scandal, a veil has been lifted on a significant minority of sexually active priests, on a clerical culture of tolerance of sexual sin and of behavior that can easily become abusive, and on the twisted dynamic of perpetrators leveraging a power differential over their victims, whether minor or adult.

The Church’s response to this crisis has not been uniform. Much more needs to happen in terms of pastoral ministry for victims in order to bring healing to the Church. Beyond its programs instituting training in the protection of minors for anyone doing ministry with minors (offered in the USA, Canada, and parts of Europe, principally Ireland, France, and Germany), the wholesale adoption of a retributive approach to justice still leaves other dimensions of this crisis painfully neglected. While valid in its core premise that wrongdoing deserves consequences, retributive justice focuses on punishing the offender, often underemphasizing the need to assist and accompany the victim.

What we should learn from listening to victims of abuse is that the current ecclesial regime of training and protection protocols, essential norms for dealing with priest-offenders, and retributive justice for perpetrators — as important as these are — will never by themselves bring healing to the Church. We need a better approach.

Restorative Justice

For the past few decades, victim advocates and those most involved with survivors of abuse have been insisting that the Church’s institutional outreach to victims must move beyond financial payments to real accompaniment. Survivors of abuse remind us over and over again: it’s not about compensation, but compassion.1 As Janine Geske and Stephen Pope have insisted so clearly:

Making amends should not be reduced to making financial payments. Some members of the hierarchy do not understand that monetary compensation (however costly) is a necessary but not sufficient means to restoration and healing. A more expansive and Christlike commitment to caritas would help some bishops move beyond an overriding and morally blinding preoccupation with legal and financial liability.2

In this context, it is our conviction that to heal a hurting Church, we need to turn with greater energy, hope, and dedication to unleashing the power of forgiveness.

This certainly does not mean, of course, that victims of abuse should be expected to forgive their perpetrators and “move on.” Tragically, that has too often been the message received by survivors of abuse from clergy and laity alike — because it’s the “Catholic thing to do.” But such an approach to victims is in fact a grotesque caricature of genuine Christian love.

What is needed is an approach that seeks just retribution for perpetrators while at the same time restoring dignity and agency to victims. Many of us find hope in applying a restorative justice approach to the crisis of sexual abuse in the Church.

Restorative justice is typically defined as a process whereby all stakeholders in the offense come together to seek resolution, to deal with the aftermath of the offense and the future implications for all the stakeholders involved.3 This process includes many dimensions: that the victim come face to face with the perpetrator so that the perpetrator might hear the victim’s story, look the victim in the eye, and apologize; that the victim might have his or her agency and dignity restored by forgiving the perpetrator, and the perpetrator have the opportunity to commence a process of making amends; and often through this process, victims have the opportunity to discover empathy for the offender, recognizing him or her as neighbor, as brother or sister. The aim is first and foremost about healing, for victim and perpetrator, and all those impacted by the offense.

Casey’s Story

Casey was twenty-seven at the time of her abuse. Having recently experienced a powerful conversion, and still working through issues from her troubled upbringing, she was serving as a Catholic lay missionary. Her early experiences of the faith were energizing, yet she was still very wounded — and altogether extremely vulnerable. It was in this context that a Catholic priest groomed her and eventually raped her. She was retraumatized and revictimized as Church officials behaved with incredulity and indifference, lacked empathy, and treated her as a cog in a process.

It took a few years before, finally, a caring diocesan attorney and a local priest became involved. Although the lawyer assured Casey that the diocese would pay for her therapy, it was clear that she was not interested in monetary rewards. At the encouragement of both, Casey courageously went public with her story. This prompted the Church to take more effective measures, including the attempt of a cardinal to assure that this priest’s bishop (the priest was from a diocese outside the United States) would undertake a canonical investigation. That investigation seems to have taken place — yet to this day the priest remains in ministry.

Casey’s story is illustrative.

First, her experience highlights the sense of abandonment and emptiness in a victim’s heart when a diocese takes a merely retributive approach to justice. That very approach, meant to remedy a wrong, does little to heal a heart.

Casey’s journey also brought her to a deeper, personal understanding of the compatibility of forgiveness and justice. In personal correspondence with Fr. Tom, Casey shared how, over time, these graced insights came to her, beginning with the need to renounce her own desire for vengeance:

I had a wise therapist who helped guide me through some of these feelings and as I began to process the trauma, some of the resentment began to fade. I realized that the anger itself was not a sin, but rather what I did with the anger. It was freeing for me to realize that feelings are morally neutral; it is what we do with the feelings that matter. It allowed me to feel the feelings and process them without allowing them to control me.

This is not to say that we do not seek justice. I have heard prelates tell victims to “forgive and forget” the abuse, but this is a perversion of mercy. Justice and mercy are not contradictory. We must seek to expose sins and bring them to the light of Christ. We must also seek to bring criminals to justice for the sake of other potential victims but also for the sake of the perpetrator himself.

Casey’s experience also teaches us, as she puts it so well, that “healing is not linear nor is forgiveness. It is a process that takes time.” For those experienced in practices of restorative justice, this becomes more than evident. At the heart of these practices is the healing circle, in which, after sometimes years of preparation, victims, perpetrators and other stakeholders come together, first and foremost to hear each other’s stories. It is in this context that sorrow and repentance can be expressed, and forgiveness asked for and received.

Not surprisingly, it is in this context that a facile, superficial, or even false forgiveness comes to be distinguished from genuine forgiveness, the fruit of years of arduous and consistent effort by the victim to recover and sustain an attitude of benevolence toward the perpetrator. Within the practice of restorative justice, it becomes clearly evident how forgiveness is more like a way of life.

Casey’s insight about the emotions that accompany the process of forgiveness should not be lost on us. In the healing process of emotional wounds, we can find ourselves dealing — sometimes for years on end — with the most intense emotions, particularly anger. Anger is a legitimate and even reasonable reaction to moral hurt — and no less of an authority than St. Thomas Aquinas would agree with us on that.4 It all depends on what we do with the anger: do we allow it to control us, or do we grapple with it, finding healthy, constructive outlets for expressing it?

In other words, love compels us to rightly channel our anger; but it does not require us necessarily to abandon anger prematurely. And in the case of the most grievous harms — particularly for victims of sexual abuse — a relatively stable reaction of anger toward the perpetrator is not incompatible with forgiveness, especially in practices of restorative justice. Sometimes we need this anger residue to fuel the quest for justice which otherwise may lose steam as emotions fade and we become desensitized. Again, it is a matter of our gaining and sustaining control of that strong emotion, not to permanently live in this state, but in order to will the good of the perpetrator and — dare we say — to love the perpetrator.5

Emily’s Story: Forgiveness as Redemptive Journey

Forgiveness in the context of the Church’s sexual abuse crisis entails not only the forgiving of perpetrators. It can embrace, as well, what is sometimes for victims an equal or greater challenge: namely, to forgive those responsible for enabling the abuser, as well as those tasked with outreach to victims. For Emily Ransom, it was the latter of the two challenges that was most daunting and most painful. She went public with her story of her abuse in 2020. Emily, like so many victims, found the process of reporting her abuse, dealing with — in her case — the superiors of the religious community of which her perpetrator was a member, utterly retraumatizing, leaving deeper wounds than the abuse itself.

That re-traumatization of victims, in and through the very bureaucratic processes supposedly intended to serve them, has sadly been the plight of far too many survivors of abuse. For Emily, it was excruciating. While well-intentioned ecclesiastical authorities were taking seriously the evil that had been done to her, they were failing to take seriously the good which she wanted to bring into this tragedy, namely, the gift of her forgiveness, and her hope that her perpetrator could recover his own dignity and wholeness.

Upon engaging with those authorities, she immediately discovered that she was being sucked into a bureaucratic process that had no use for her gift. She was not to contact the perpetrator, she was not to be involved in whatever was next for him, and eventually she was told: “We will be in contact with you.” That contact and communication with her perpetrator’s religious superiors dried up after a few months. As far as Emily was concerned, the initial violence she suffered from her perpetrator was followed by violence from the institutional Church. The Church had rendered her gift — her forgiveness — ineffectual.

Emily’s story, her candor and vulnerability, are especially remarkable because her abuse occurred in adulthood. In publishing her story, Emily understood that she was opening herself up to what so many adult victims of abuse and sexual assault must confront: victim blaming. Although thirty-five at the time, Emily had never dated, and she was a very recent convert to Catholicism: both elements which predisposed her own naïveté with regard to the man who eventually abused her, someone she considered — and still considers — to be a brother in Christ.

In going public with her story, it should be noted, she had to confront what she calls the “dupe-factor,” namely that any victim who reports their abuse or goes public with their story can struggle with feeling like a fool for having succumbed to the perpetrator’s grooming and overtures. This sensation of humiliation can constitute a real hurdle for many victims and may explain why it often takes so long for them to come forward.

She is grateful for the #MeToo movement for opening the possibility for her to transcend her own confusion and come to understand the complex reality of what had happened to her:

No, my friends insisted, I had not been “asking for it.” They pointed out the abused power dynamic between a priest and a laywoman, between a host and his out-of-town guest, of age and esteemed reputation on one side and youth and early-career vulnerability on the other. Yes, they maintained, legally it was sexual assault, physical contact of a sexual nature without consent. No, they clarified, my frightened inaction was absolutely not consent, and consenting to one thing did not imply consenting to another; in the absence of active consent, it was assault.

The #MeToo movement indeed led to a deeper public understanding of how abusers leverage their power to exploit their victims.6 Yet Emily was not ultimately satisfied with the answers she was finding in the contemporary fixation on retributive justice. She was compelled to go deeper, to embark, as she describes it, on a journey seeking a “redemptive path,” to turn what happened to her “into a story of hope.”

Restorative Justice, the Crisis of Clerical Sexual Abuse, and the Triumph of Grace

Practices of restorative justice have a deep natural affinity to the restorative and redemptive possibilities of forgiveness in Christ. In the Church’s ongoing response to the sexual abuse crisis, we should be able to combine the best practices of restorative justice with a vibrant faith in the transforming power of grace and the deeply redemptive nature of forgiveness in Christ.

And Emily’s story wonderfully illustrates this.

First, her story brings into clear relief one of the deepest contributions from practices of restorative justice, namely, that forgiveness is an immensely positive and empowering act for victims of abuse. Reflecting with me on her experience now several years removed from the abuse, she shared in an email exchange:

Forgiveness does something (heals, redeems, blazes a new trail, seeks the good), rather than only not doing something (not lashing out, not resenting, etc.). It’s that negative understanding of forgiveness that can seem so damaging for victims of abuse. The crime itself had stripped their agency, and if forgiveness is understood as not acting, it does keep them in the position of passivity. But forgiveness understood positively was not only comforting but also dignifying, restoring my agency and choosing to write something else over the story of destruction.7

At the very heart of practices of restorative justice in the context the Church’s sexual abuse crisis, forgiveness is conceived of as an extraordinarily positive and empowering action on the part of the victim, as Emily has just underlined. It presumes an attitude of benevolence toward the perpetrator, acknowledging him or her once again as neighbor. By the same token, forgiveness is compatible with just anger toward the offender, anger aimed ultimately at the offender’s own good; it can accommodate both the remission of punishment or the administration of appropriate punishment for the good of all — the victim, the other stakeholders, and, again, the perpetrator. Forgiveness forgoes and withstands the inclination to hate the perpetrator and to seek revenge, and it can accommodate both the renunciation or retention of feelings of resentment.

Yet Emily’s journey brought her much further. It compelled her to bring her human readiness to forgive before the cross of Jesus, and there to plumb the depths of the mystical work and transformative power of the heart of Christ who takes our deepest hurts, our most brutal sufferings, and can make them redemptive:

I felt the paucity of the prior models available to me, especially at this particular historical moment that saw retributive justice as the primary alternative to sweeping offenses under the rug. To find an alternative, I thus shut out the voices of . . . both the #MeToo movement and the call for reckoning in the clerical sexual abuse crisis. After all, this was my assault, not theirs. They were not yet asking the questions I needed, questions about healing, redemption, forgiveness, reconciliation. For those questions, I could only turn to the Gospel.

Emily discovered there, in a deeply intimate and personal way, how Jesus responds and what he says — in the today of our Church — to the tragedy of the sexual abuse crisis. Jesus, the Lord of life and of human history, can envelope darkness with light, and can submerge sinfulness, betrayal, and our deepest tragedies into a flood of grace. And the wounds he bore in his hands, feet, and side, even after the resurrection, are the most eloquent testimonial of this divine triumph:

Christ’s Passion is never erased, and Christ himself forever bears the wounds. It is not erased; it is transfigured by the resurrection when “death is swallowed in victory” (1 Cor 15:54). The worst thing imaginable becomes the instrument of our redemption precisely because of its inalterable horror. Mysteriously, Christ invites my own suffering into a participation in this redemptive act.

Only Christ can save his Church from the sexual abuse crisis. We are called to be collaborators with him in this work of salvation. Ours is to be sharers in what is surely already a lifetime struggle, one encompassing this and the next generation. The practices of restorative justice point us in a very good direction — what we might call “eucharistic justice,” a portfolio of restorative practices that include truth-telling, acknowledging the suffering of survivors, the healing of memories, reparations, apologies, penance, punishment — and forgiveness.8

Grace can work upon those efforts, sublimating and transforming them by the power of Jesus’s resurrection: “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Co. 15:55). This is Christ’s response to the abuse crisis.

And because of that, we have no reason to respond with anything less than a resilient hope for the healing of our Church, and a tender empathy for our brothers and sisters who have suffered so unspeakably. The powerful witness of Casey and Emily and so many other survivors of abuse who have traveled the rugged road of forgiveness refreshes our faith, enkindles our charity, and emboldens our hope.


This essay is a slightly modified excerpt from Choosing Forgiveness: Unleash the Power of God’s Grace, co-authored with Dr. Timothy Lock (Our Sunday Visitor, 2022). Used by permission.

  1. See Stephen J. Pope, “The Promise of Restorative Justice,” America Magazine, December 24, 2018. Our call as a community of disciples is to be, for victims of abuse, “a community of compassion and not just compensation.”
  2. Stephen J. Pope and Janine P. Geske, “Anger, Forgiveness, and Restorative Justice in Light of Clerical Sexual Abuse and Its Cover-up,” Theological Studies 80 (3) 2019, 629.
  3. Australian criminologist John Braithwaite critiques and further specifies that definition:

    Its main limitation is that it does not tell us who or what is to be restored. It does not define core values of restorative justice, which are about healing rather than hurting, moral learning, community participation and community caring, respectful dialogue, forgiveness, responsibility, apology, and making amends (see Nicholl 1998). I take those who have a “stake in a particular offense” to mean primarily the victim(s), the offender(s), and affected communities (which includes the families of victims and offenders). So restorative justice is about restoring victims, restoring offenders, and restoring communities (Bazemore and Umbreit 1994; Brown and Polk 1996). One answer to the “What is to be restored?” question is whatever dimensions of restoration matter to the victims, offenders, and communities affected by the crime. Stakeholder deliberation determines what restoration means in a specific context. (John Braithwaite, Restorative Justice & Responsive Regulation, Oxford University Press, 2002, 11).

  4. Aquinas holds, in fact, that anger (as opposed to hatred) is not only natural, but ultimately rational. Ever the observer of human nature, Aquinas himself understood — rather personally — that anger can be rightly ordered, that there is a reasonable manifestation of anger. This was doubtlessly bolstered, as Robert Miner has observed, by Aquinas’s own brutal experience of having been imprisoned by his own family members who then sprang a prostitute on him in an attempt to keep him from following his vocation as a Dominican. Aquinas knew what it was to feel deep anger toward loved ones — an anger that was entirely reasonable. Not surprisingly, as Miner further observes, exploring the passion of anger in his Summa (I-II q. 46, especially in articles 4-6), Aquinas mounts a veritable apologia pro ira, a defense of anger against its critics. He holds that the object of anger is vindication (not unrelated to our contemporary notion of validation), that seeking vindication presupposes the use of reason, that vindication is a good worthy of reasonable pursuit, that when attained in a manner proportionate to the offense, it instantiates justice — which is also for the good of the perpetrator. But again, Aquinas is speaking here of anger — rightly ordered anger — and not hatred, which especially in the context of the sexual abuse crisis, can often be confused with just anger. See Robert Miner, Thomas Aquinas on the Passions (Cambridge University Press, 2009), 268–286.
  5. Geske and Pope very correctly note in fact that a relatively stable feeling of resentment toward the perpetrator can be compatible with forgiveness and with willing the good for the offender: “In some cases, proper self-regard, or willing the good for the self, may make it necessary for one to will the good to the offender while also acknowledging the legitimacy of one’s own resentment” (Pope and Geske, “Anger, Forgiveness, and Restorative Justice,” 624–625).
  6. While many in the Church recognize that a “vulnerable adult” can also be vulnerable due to the fact that there’s a differential in power between the adult victim and their abuser, Canon Law continues to define “vulnerable adult” narrowly. It is common sense, however, to grasp for example that a woman who has gone through a difficult divorce, or a young adult dealing with anxiety and suicidal thoughts, or even in Emily’s case, a well-educated and enthusiastic adult, an academic, and recent convert to Catholicism — all are vulnerable to someone taking advantage of them who is in a position of trust and guidance, and in the case of clerics, who are set in a power differential due to the authority entrusted to them by the Church. Any adult can be vulnerable to sexual abuse where there is a differential of power between themselves and their abuser.
  7. This is precisely the point that Margaret Farley has underlined as well:

    A descriptive analysis of the experience of forgiveness yields something like the following. To forgive is above all not to be passive in the face of injury, betrayal, persecution, abuse. Forgiveness may, in fact, be one of the most active responses possible in the face of whatever sort of breach occurs in human relationships. It is linguistically a “performative” — an utterance or gesture that signifies an action which accomplishes or at least aims to accomplish something. (“Forgiveness in the service of love,” in Fredrick V. Simmons, ed., Love and Christian Ethics: Tradition, Theory and Society (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 2016), 164).

  8. See Daniel Philpott, “Why the Catholic Church needs a Eucharistic response to the sex abuse scandals,” America, February 20, 2019.
Rev. Thomas V. Berg, PhD About Rev. Thomas V. Berg, PhD

Rev. Thomas V. Berg is Professor of Moral Theology and Director of Admissions at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie). He is author most recently of Hurting in the Church: A Way Forward for Wounded Catholics (Our Sunday Visitor, January 2017). In addition to moral theology, his areas of specialization include natural law theory, medical ethics, and philosophical and theological anthropology. He has published or been quoted in Crisis Magazine, the National Catholic Register, The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. He can be reached at: