This was my homily from Mass this morning.
Skandalon, a stumbling block, something that trips you up and makes you fall. That’s the word for it in Greek. Skandalon, just like a scandal in English. And it would be better for a man to be thrown in the sea tied by the neck to a millstone than to cause one of these little ones to stumble.
In our own day, I say with tears in my eyes, we know the names of Priests who had sex with children and caused them to stumble. Names like Porter and Geoghan, Holley and Lavigne, and so many others.
But they’re not just names. Each of them were once seminarians like you, but, after raping a child they were convicted, jailed and laicized. Why? Because, in the words of Pope John Paul II: “There is no place in the priesthood…for those who would harm the young.”
Harm the young…. What happens to the child who has been abused? What comes of this skandalon? There is often depression and guilt, shame and self-blame, anxiety, dissociative patterns, repression, denial, sexual and relationship problems which can perdure for decades or for an entire lifetime, all growing from that skandalon at the hands of a priest. For, as Mother Cabrini herself once said: “The impressions of childhood are never obliterated.”
And it could have happened to any one of us.
At the consistory before the last conclave to elect a Pope, our own Cardinal Sean O’Malley recalled how he, baptized by his uncle, serving Mass from the time he was six and at 13 beginning seminary had known only good and holy priests who gave him good example and nurtured his faith. “But,” he asked, “[what] if I had been a victim of a pedophile priest, would I be here today? Would I still be a Catholic? Would I have committed suicide like so many did?”
For the child, as Pope John Paul II once wrote, is “like soft wax on which every tiniest pressure leaves a mark…”. Which is precisely why the Lord Jesus gently welcomed little children, defended them when they wanted to come to him, and praised their trusting simplicity as being worthy of the Kingdom of God.
The same Pope reminds us, for “every sinner who follows the way of repentance, conversion and pardon can call on the mercy of God…” so even the repentant priest perpetrator can be forgiven by God. But that does not mean he can ever act as a priest again. Rather, as the Charter for the Protection of Children requires: “the offending priest or deacon is to be permanently removed from ministry and, if warranted, dismissed from the clerical state.”
It is a terrible penalty for a terrible crime, just as the scandal of child sexual abuse by priests has brought about one of the darkest chapters in the history of the Church in the United States and in the world.
But we should never despair, for, as the psalmist reminds us, God is always with us: should we rise to the heavens or sink to the nether world, he is there, taking us by the hand to guide us and hold us fast.
Which is why we have dedicated ourselves as a Church to carefully protecting children and a real commitment to accountability, transparency and child safety within the Church, praying, in the words of our beloved Pope Emeritus:
“[That the] Lord Jesus [may] instill in each of us, as ministers of the Church, the same love and affection for the little ones which characterized his own presence among us, and which in turn enjoins on us a particular responsibility for the welfare of children and vulnerable adults. May Mary Most Holy, Mother of tenderness and mercy, help us to carry out, generously and thoroughly, our duty to humbly acknowledge and repair past injustices and to remain ever faithful in the work of protecting those closest to the heart of Jesus.”