Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word
Many years ago, alone in my church office, I received a somewhat startling call.
“Is that the minister?” said a voice. “Yes” I replied. I was sexually abused by your church when I was young” the voice said, “and I’m only realizing now how much it’s affected me, how angry I am. I’m going to go public and tell the newspaper and sue the church!”
Although the story of abuse (ironically by a trusted lay leader rather a clergyperson) was not new to me, the phone call caught me by surprise. I assured the person that I cared very much about their experience and would be wiling to meet with them to hear their story.
Then I reached out to others I imagined had more experience than I did in this kind of situation; mentors, colleagues, lay leaders and lawyers with experience in sexual abuse litigation. I received all kinds of advice and among it was: “Don’t meet alone with the person. Don’t say you’re sorry or admit that it happened. Tape future phone calls. Keep notes and make sure there’s a paper trail of every communication.” Voices fearful of litigation, reputation, shame and blame within and upon our religious community.
I thought deeply about my role as a pastor, caring for the heart and souls of people alongside my responsibility to be a steward of the institution, enabling the church to go forward into the future caring for more souls. I decided to meet with the person anyway, alone, with no recording devices or note-taking.
That day, I listened with all my heart to the story of abuse, confusion, anger and pain as it was poured out in front of me. Over the next few hours both of us were in tears more than once. During that time, I mostly listened, but I made sure I said a couple of things really clearly.
“I believe you. And I am so, so sorry.”
After we met, I called to check up a short while later. The person told me a weight had been lifted that had been there for years. Not that it’s important, but they never did “go public” or sue the church. Years later when they died, they left a letter asking that I conduct their funeral and I was honoured to do so.
I have thought of this situation many times over the last week while considering the growing pressure on the Catholic Church for the Pope to issue an apology for Residential Schools in light of the heart-breaking discovery of 215 children in unmarked graves at the Kamloops Residential School.
I understand that the Pope heads up one of the largest religious institutions in the world. I also know that before he was the Pope, he was a priest, a pastor, a servant, a shepherd – charged with the tender care of souls. As my own experience taught me, I believe there are times when your vows as a minister should supersede your role as an institutional leader and this is one of those times. It’s also the Catholic thing to do.
Every single religion teaches that acknowledgment of our sins and failings must come before forgiveness and healing. On Yom Kippur, you must make things right with your fellow human beings before you come before God in Atonement. In Catholicism, there’s no Absolution or Forgiveness without Confession! It’s right there in your liturgy!
Studies in abuse and recovery show that for true healing to occur, survivors need to be listened to and to have their needs acted upon. So listen to the story. Believe it. Take down the picture of the offending minister. Topple the statue. Re-write the history book. Pay the compensation, even if it bankrupts you, because there are lots of ways that churches can go bankrupt and only one of them is money. And true healing cannot begin until you say “I’m sorry” and “What do you need?”
So Pope Francis, if you want to be a transformational leader, look into your shepherd’s heart and ask yourself, how much good could I do with this simple act? Say you’re sorry and then root out the problem so it never happens again. We teach our 5 year olds that “Sorry” is the first and most important step to healing a hurt, but it only means something if it’s followed by a change in behaviour.
Is that so hard for a grown man to understand?