Adam A.J. DeVille" />

How should we feel when a priest we know is accused of abuse? There is no one answer



An acquaintance once paused awkwardly before confessing to being really upset over the death of his barber. His somewhat sheepish tone clearly suggested that he was expecting me to find his reaction overwrought. Instead, I was able to affirm his feelings, knowing that, for some men, the barbershop is not just a place where you get your hair cut. It has been well documented that barbers are also confidantes, counselors and coaches. In fact, some recent initiatives are expanding upon the mental-health role barbers play for many African Americans.

My acquaintance was experiencing what is called “disenfranchised grief.” This happens when unusual relationships end, or your usual relationships end in ways other than death — think, for example, of grandchildren never seen again after a nasty divorce by the parents who then move far away; or of the grandparents themselves lost to Alzheimer’s disease and unable to recognize you any more; or, as Catholics, when a priest was removed for allegations of sexual abuse.

The Church removes accused priests from their posts immediately. This is exactly right. The damage abusers do to the Body of Christ and the bodies, minds and souls of their victims is immense. My own clinical work with sexually abused men and boys reveals again and again the lifelong trauma that results.

Even so, it can be wrenching when you show up at Sunday Mass expecting to see Father X but instead find him suddenly gone, and a terse explanation is offered by a diocesan official. What do you do with all this?

Most of us, in the first throes of shock, struggle to recognize that our grief is not just disenfranchised but also highly ambivalent (which doesn’t mean that we are uninterested or don’t care, but that we have mixed feelings). Some might wonder: Can I miss this person, knowing what wicked things he stands accused of doing?

Others ask: What do I do with my rage and disgust?

And still others struggle, wondering: Is there any room to recognize the legitimately good things he did while also being appalled by the evil he is said to have done?

Clinical work has convinced me that we humans are not very good at holding more than one truth in mind at the same time. I see patients struggle with ambiguity and ambivalence — one adolescent hates a parent for abuse and neglect but still longs for some kind of relationship with that parent. A spouse really hates his wife’s alcoholism enough to contemplate divorce, yet he still loves her enough to want the marriage to survive.

Such reactions illustrate that Freud was right: Ambivalence is an ineradicable part of the human condition.

Ambivalence is very much in evidence in the Emmaus road story in the 24th Chapter of Luke. Here we see the traumatized apostles ricochet between grief-induced blindness (v. 16) and bewilderment (v. 19) to joyfully burning hearts (v. 32) as they recognize that Christ is alive, and then back to fear (v. 37), some more anguished questioning of Jesus (v. 38), and then back again to joy (v. 52).

Ambivalence often has a bad reputation, but I would stress that it is freeing for us not to have to react in one specified or “approved” way, and one way only. I would further stress that ambivalence gives us the necessary room to do two crucial things: First, however much they revolt us, let us remember that even a sexual abuser bears the image of God and is a fellow human being beloved by him and redeemed by him; and second, that this fallen person is not a monochromatic monster whose life we can now retroactively rubbish, painting all his deeds only in black.

In this light, it is possible to be grateful for some helpful thing an accused priest said to you in confession, or the care he provided at your grandmother’s funeral. Doing so does not mean that you take sexual abuse lightly! You can remember something with gratitude while also demanding justice for victims and accountability and repentance from the priest.

You can do all this while humbly recognizing, as Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously said, that the line between good and evil runs through every human heart. Ordination does nothing to change this ontological fact.

Karl Barth, the famous Protestant theologian, once said the most dangerous word in the Catholic vocabulary is “and.” I dispute that and insist it’s one of the most important, in this context at least: Catholics can love and hate, laugh and cry, without having to resolve the tension between them. Indeed, an artificial or hasty resolution of that tension often produces other sorts of problems.

In particular, never allow yourself to be bullied into some peremptory form of “forgiveness,” often passive-aggressively pushed on us under a patina of piety. This is especially true for victims: Under no circumstances should anyone ever demand of victims that they must forgive Father X in a certain way or by a certain time. There is no timetable here, and another’s forgiveness is not yours to commandeer.

None of this ambivalent stock-taking will be quick or easy, and none of it is guaranteed to give us tidy answers. Why do men vowed to such a high calling destroy lives (including their own) with so heinous a sin? Why did my priest and beloved confessor do such wicked things? You may never know. In the meantime, you may for a long while remain both mad and sad.

The Church rightly speaks of the mysterium iniquitatis (“the mystery of evil”), and even so great and patient a man as Job was not given all the answers by God to his manifold and mysterious sufferings at the hands of the evil one. Sometimes, like Job, we simply have to be patient with ourselves and allow the very mixed emotions and unanswered questions to wash over us without doing anything about them. God may someday give us answers, but they will be on his timetable, not ours.

In the meantime, there is wisdom in following the Austrian Catholic poet Rainer Maria Rilke. In his justly celebrated “Letters to a Young Poet,” which I have often returned to over the last 30 years since first discovering them, he offers some consoling counsel: “[H]ave patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves. … Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

Adam A.J. DeVille is author of “Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power” (Angelico Press, $16.95). He writes from Indiana.

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