Dr Phil Sutton on Forgiveness and the Sex Abuse Crisis

Dr Phil Sutton on Forgiveness and the Sex Abuse Crisis
Philip Sutton, PhD
The following statement is an excerpt from a paper by my friend and colleague, Dr Philip Sutton, a psychologist in the diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend and member of NARTH. The use of the thought of Blessed and its application to the contemporary issue of and gay marriage, is noteworthy for this Forum. The full paper may be found here
“Let us forgive and ask !” During his homily on the First Sunday of Lent in the year 2000, the year of the Great Jubilee of the beginning of the third millennium of human history in Christ, Pope John Paul II implored “divine forgiveness for the sins of all believers,” both past and present. Twice he exhorted: “Let us forgive and ask forgiveness!” His exhortation on this “Day of Pardon” was the culmination of efforts toward reconciliation within the Church and between those within and outside the Church throughout his pontificate. 

In particular, John Paul II’s request: “Let us forgive and ask forgiveness!” was the fruit of six years of “a profound examination of conscience…before Christ” to achieve  a “purification of memory,” resulting hopefully in the Church’s being reconciled among her own Catholic and Christian members and with the rest of the world. Quoting his own Bull Incarnationis mysterium, John Paul II reminded his listeners that he had “asked that ‘in this year of mercy the Church, strong in the holiness which she receives from her Lord, should kneel before God and implore forgiveness for the past and present sins of her sons and daughters’…. The recognition of past wrongs serves to reawaken our consciences to the compromises of the present, opening the way to conversion for everyone.”  . . .

John Paul II reminds us that the root cause of the rifts, divisions and alienations in families, relationships, the Church and the world is “a wound in man’s inmost self” called “sin: beginning with the original sin, which all of us bear from birth as an inheritance from our first parents, to the sin which each of us commits when we abuse our own freedom.” Therefore, “the longing for reconciliation and reconciliation itself will be complete and effective only to the extent that they reach- in order to heal- that original wound which is the root of all other wounds: namely sin.”

Blessed John Paul II challenged the Church as a whole and each individual son and daughter of the Church to seek forgiveness: “Ask for forgiveness from all whom you have offended, give forgiveness to all who have offended you, and seek reconciliation with all from whom you are estranged. Seek first to be forgiven by and to be reconciled with God, and then it will be possible to seek forgiveness from, and hopefully to be reconciled with, whomever you have offended.”

John Paul II’s general challenge to the Church and its members, as well as the psychology of forgiveness, have particular relevance in responding to the present clerical sexual abuse crisis. Suggestions for seeking and giving forgiveness and for achieving reconciliation in this crisis now will be discussed in light of the work of Catholic psychiatrist Richard Fitzgibbons and his colleagues of the Catholic Medical Association. Fitzgibbons, et al., have theoretical, empirical and clinical expertise on the causes, treatment and prevention of homosexual attractions and behaviors in general, and on the current clerical abuse crisis in particular. (See  Richard Fitzgibbons, “The Origins and Healing of Homosexual Attractions and Behaviors” in Fr. John Harvey, OSFS, The Truth About Homosexuality: The Cry of the Faithful (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996), p. 307-343; and the Catholic Medical Association, Homosexuality and Hope:  Statement of the Catholic Medical Association, 2000, (http://www.cathmed.org/issues_resources/publications/position_papers/homosexuality_and_hope/ ) for which Fitzgibbons was a primary author.) The psychology of forgiveness and the Church’s magisterium on forgiveness and reconciliation each emphasize the need to identify accurately who, did what, to whom. Enright asserts that in order to give or receive forgiveness, it must be clear what offense was received or given. Also, offenders and offended must be understood in their humanity, especially in terms of the external causes and consequences of their having received or given offense. Similarly, when the Church seeks pardon for the sins of its members, an accurate historical study must be done “of the events, of the customs, of the mentality of the time, in the light of historical context of the epoch.” An objective historical analysis of the “offense” would avoid justifying every action by Church authorities as well as “an unwarranted laying of blame, based on historically untenable attributions of responsibility.” Proper discernment should be given to “images of the past steered by public opinion, since these are frequently highly charged with passionate emotion which impedes serene and objective diagnosis.” . . .

We must confront the loss of a sense of sin. As Fitzgibbons et al. observe: “In treating priests who have engaged in pedophilia and ephebophilia (homosexual relations with teenage boys) we have observed that these men almost without exception suffered from a denial of sin in their lives.” Such priests typically rejected: the Church’s teachings on sexual morality, …consistently refused to examine their consciences, to accept the Church’s teachings on moral issues as a guide for their personal actions, or regularly avail themselves of the sacrament of reconciliation. These priests either refused to seek spiritual direction or choose a spiritual director or confessor who openly rebelled against Church teachings on sexuality.  Tragically, these mistakes allowed these men to justify their behaviors.

Enright’s psychology of forgiveness has demonstrated that one cannot (or at least will not) give or seek forgiveness if one does not admit that a serious wrong has been done to oneself, or by oneself. Similarly, a sin may not be “confessed” or “repented of” unless one recognizes that what one has done is a sin. Anecdotal and autobiographical reports of persons who have overcome post abortion distress as well as homosexual feelings and behaviors illustrate the importance of calling wrongdoing “wrong,” or calling a sin, “a sin.”  Unfortunately, there has been much misinformation about the nature of homosexual sin in particular. As Fitzgibbons et al. report:

One of the major problems we have discovered in discussing this issue with the clergy and the laity is the enormous amount of misinformation about the nature, origins, and treatment of homosexuality/SSA (same-sex attraction). This is not accidental. For over twenty years, activists, intent on changing the laws on sexual orientation, have put forward a massive public relations campaign specifically designed to spread misinformation that will change the social acceptance of homosexuality.

Misinformation about homosexuality has contributed not only to the current clerical sexual abuse crisis in the Church but also to a more general “moral atmosphere” that exists within secular culture- and sadly at times in the Church- in which the “sense of sin”- particularly sexual sin- has been lost. For Natural (moral) Law, sacred Scripture and Catholic Tradition teach that sexual activity is intended only for a man and a woman within the covenant of permanent, faithful marriage. All unchaste behavior is wrong, including fornication, contraception, adultery, masturbation, pornography and homosexual behavior. But our culture accepts and encourages any kind of sexual activity. In particular, the secular culture promotes the belief that homosexual activity is natural and good for those who experience same sex attractions.

These developments are part of what John Paul II describes as the loss or weakening of the sense of sin rooted in the serious “clouding,” “eclipsing,” “deforming,” “numbing” or “deadening of conscience.” He quotes Pius XI who declared that “the sin of the (20th) century is the loss of the “sense of sin.” The Holy Father continues:

 To acknowledge one’s sin, indeed…to recognize oneself as being a sinner, capable of sin and inclined to commit sin, is the essential first step in returning to God. …In effect, to become reconciled with God presupposes and includes detaching oneself consciously and with determination from the sin into which one has fallen. It presupposes and includes…repenting, showing this repentance, adopting a real attitude of repentance- which is the attitude of the person who starts out on the road of return to the Father. This is a general law and one which each individual must follow in his or her particular situation. For it is not possible to deal with sin and conversion only in abstract terms. In the concrete circumstances of sinful humanity, …there can be no conversion without the acknowledgment of one’s own sin.” (Reconciliation and Penance §13)

And if this is true for the “sense of sin” in general, it is certainly true for the “sense of sexual sin” and “the sense of homosexual sin” in particular.   John Paul II asserts that restoring a healthy sense of sin involves confronting the influences, especially those within the Church, which have enabled the sense of sin to be weakened or lost. This has occurred partially due to unwise responses by her pastors to the unavoidable tension between two coexisting and mutually influential principles of pastoral counsel. The first principle is that of compassion and mercy, whereby the church, as the continuer in history of Christ’s presence and work, not wishing the death of the sinner but that the sinner should be converted and live (cf. Ez 18:23), and careful not to break the bruised reed or to quench the dimly burning wick (cf. Is 42:3; Mt 12:20), ever seeks to offer, as far as possible, the path of return to God and of reconciliation with him. The other principle is that of truth and consistency, whereby the church does not agree to call good evil and evil good. (Reconciliation and Penance §34)
 Assuming the good will of bishops, priests, and other teachers of the Church, the failure to confront directly the “objective disorder” of same-sex attractions and the objective immorality of homosexual behaviors may be attributed to a “misguided mercy.” Such an approach sacrifices “moral truth and consistency” to “pastoral compassion and mercy.” Presumably, pastors and teachers of the Church have tried correctly to avoid the unjust condemnation of persons just because they feel same gender sexual attractions (SSA) or experience temptations to homosexual or other unchaste behaviors. But in so doing, the same pastors and teachers may have failed to teach the truth about the objective wrong of such acts. . . .

In Reconciliation and Penance, John Paul II recommends catechesis on a number of topics, including: a healthy sense of sin, the nature and means of contrition and penance, conscience formation, resisting temptations (as  “an opportunity for growing in fidelity and consistency through humility and watchfulness”) avoiding occasions of sin, and “the four last things of man: death, judgment (universal and particular), hell and heaven.” For “only in this eschatological vision can one realize the exact nature of sin and feel decisively moved to penance and reconciliation.” Of course, catechesis on the nature and causes of homosexual temptations and on ways to prevent, avoid gratifying and even “outgrowing” the experience of such temptations would be timely in addressing the current crisis.


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