Prayer is but the beginning


27 Feb 2023

In his March prayer intention for victims of abuse, Pope Francis is right to emphasise the need for a concrete response.
When the abuse of children by priests and Religious first became public, many Catholics hoped that it was like a skin cancer that could quickly be dealt with. As time has passed, however, we now recognise that it is more like a cancer that has spread and demands radical treatment and a change of lifestyle.

We know now how deeply people who are abused can suffer from its effects, not just as children, but throughout their whole lives. We know, too, how mistaken Church authorities were to regard it as a sin to be forgiven and not as a crime to be reported to police, or even worse as a threat to the Church’s reputation to be concealed. We also know that we should take children seriously when they say they have been abused.

The Church has now instituted protocols and procedures to keep children safe, has held bishops responsible for neglect of their duties, has frequently apologised to victims of abuse, and has paid money to many victims as a sign of repentance. And we are all reminded of abuse within the Church by the publicity given to accusations recent and new.

It is always tempting to want to move on from shameful deeds. But it would be wrong. What matters is the suffering of the people whose trust in the Church and its representatives was abused and their claim on us. In the Church they are the face of the suffering Christ, a face that must be contemplated and tended. As long as they live and bear at Catholic hands the burden of sins for which Christ died Catholics may not forget nor neglect them.

That is why Pope Francis this month prays very simply for those who have suffered harm from members of the Church. They form the Body of Christ. They and their suffering are not marginal to the life of the church but at its centre. They remind us that Christ calls us as sinners and calls on us to repent as a Church and to meet and listen to the voices of those who have been betrayed by our Church. Our first call is to keep pray for them as our brothers and sisters and to reach out to them in shame and love.

Pope Francis emphasises the seriousness of our responsibility as Catholics to people who have suffered abuse at the hands of church representatives by insisting that thy meet a concrete response. Prayer is not enough. The response must express itself in meeting, listening, making restitution and other face to face dealings. That, of course, may be difficult. Many people who have suffered abuse have been driven away from God and have abandoned the Church. This is wholly understandable. They will be rightly wary of being caught in meetings driven by the desire of people to feel better about themselves. But as we would do with alienated members of our family, we need to keep being interested in them and reaching out to them. This is not simply a kindness or a duty but a natural expression of our call to follow Jesus.

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ is an editorial consultant at Jesuit Communications
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