Posted by: L. E. Barnes | June 24, 2010

The New Lepers?

Greg Erlandson has written an article for Our Sunday Visitor that discusses our attitudes toward child molesters. He begins by expressing revulsion toward the sexual abuse of chidren:

It is critically important that any Catholic speaking out on the clergy sexual abuse crisis, particularly anyone who suggests that the general media coverage of the issue is incomplete, make it absolutely clear that the sexual abuse of a child is abhorrent. I have known more than a few people who have been sexually abused, though none to my knowledge by priests, so I have seen the long-term damage that is done by such abuse. These are more wounds than scars, and they can last a lifetime.

But then he takes his discussion in a different direction:

But in making absolutely clear that the victim is not to be blamed, and is, in the words of Pope Benedict, “courageous” for speaking out, I feel at times that we run the risk of turning the abuser into something less than human, an icon of hate, someone that we can all feel free to loathe….

I feel it myself. I can only imagine what a murderous rage I would feel if a child of mine were abused….

But as Catholics, we cannot stay at the level of rage. Isn’t Christ challenging us to see him even in the deviant?

Erlandson acknowledges this is not an easy thing to do. He draws a comparison to St. Francis’s embracing lepers, people who were utterly shunned by society at that time. In addition, Erlandson points to how Christ reached out to sinners.

Child abusers may be the most hated of creatures in our society. Even the worst criminals despise child molesters, in part because many criminals were themselves abused when they were young. 

The child abuser, even one who has not acted on his impulses, is a haunted, cursed creature. Our instinct is to shun him, even as we justly hate his actions. Yet if we hate him, are we any different from the world, hating what the world hates? Could this person be where we are challenged to encounter Christ in what Mother Teresa called “one of his more distressing disguises”? 

The very thought fills me with the kind of dread that Francis must have felt when he realized he was called to embrace the most repulsive and feared of men, the dread he felt before he encountered Christ.

The pastor of my parish once told us about being in Rome with some fellow Passionist priests and coming across a member of the order who was a known sex offender. That priest, who had served in the Passionists’ western province in the US, had molested young people, resulting in huge law suits being brought against the order. (In fact, that man had absolutely ruined the Passionists’ western province financially. Millions had to be forked up–largely obtained from selling much of the order’s property–to pay for his lawsuits.) So our pastor said that he didn’t even be near that guy, and he loathed having to sit at the same table as him when the priests assembled for a meal. It was a struggle for him, but our pastor admitted that he had to bear in mind the New Testament’s admonishments for us to love and reach out to sinners.

In all honesty, it’s hard for me to feel anything but contempt for child molesters, especially those who are clergy. But Erlandson’s article raises a valid point. (You can read the full article here.) How can I learn to have compassion for these people? I know Christ gave Himself for them too, after all. Perhaps it’s just a matter of reaching out like St. Francis did, in spite of whatever revulsion we may feel.

Your thoughts?



  1. Love them? Yes. I think we have to love them. Jesus told us to. But love in this case is a decision not a feeling. Jesus said we have to love our neighbor, He didn’t say we had to like them. We do not have to be their best friends. We can pray for them. We can forgive them. These are decisions.
    But compassion? I think of that as a feeling and I cannot force myself to feel something that is not there. I have a harder time with that idea.

    • That’s right. Love is definitely a decision. Not always an easy one, though. I know I should feel compassion for the offenders, as they will someday have to answer to God for what they have done. The Lord will forgive them if they truly repent, although we probably would like to see them face punishment.

      • In reading the article you quoted from, his story of that woman was moving but of course she was talking to a man who had resisted his urges (if he is telling the truth), who had suffered greatly in order to protect his children. That kind of scenario is pretty rare.
        What if we are talking to an abuser who felt no guilt or felt guilt but kept molesting anyway and did not even seek help until forced into it? No repentance at all? How much harder is it to forgive?
        I forgave my father. Over and over. I forced him into therapy, but he quit eventually. He still does not understand how much he has hurt me. I still forgive him. And I DO feel compassion. What kind of a life does he have? He has lost touch with his children and grandchildren. He has lived in fear of the truth coming out. But until he stops abusing me (emotionally) I cannot see him any more. I pray for him. I wish him peace. I cannot do any more than that.

  2. […] The New Lepers? […]

  3. You’ve really hit on something here. This is a challenge for all of us, I think, especially b/c we’re all wounded by association, being Catholic when the whole institution has been summarily dismissed, even by many of its members (it’s happened w/in my family) because of this issue.

    • Kathleen,
      The actions of those priests really hurt the Church, in addition to the trauma they caused their victims. The damage this has done, as well as that of the Church leaders who failed to take appropriate actions, will probably last for years. I’m sorry to hear that some of your family members have turned their back on the Church because of this. Perhaps the spiritual harm caused by this scandal is the greatest tragedy of all.

  4. Evan, thank you for your comments here. Very affirming for me.

    • Colleen,
      And thank you for commenting! It helps for me to hear from others, to get their perspectives.

      That fellow the article mentioned who was struggling with pedophile desires is probably an exception to the rule. Or so I suspect, anyway. I’ve read about people who have actually promoted the legalization of pedophilia (they call themselves the “child love movement”–sick, sick, sick!).

      I was deeply touched by your comments about your own experiences with your father. I hope he truly repents and is reconciled not only to you and the rest of your family but most of all to God. And you’re right that we really can’t do more for people like that except forgive and pray for their conversion. Forgiving doesn’t mean allowing people to keep doing us harm.

  5. How I regard sex offenders, especially the unrepentant ones is something I haven’t given much thought to, but your post has made me ponder this issue. Certainly many offenders were abused as children, and perhaps the urge remains for a lifetime. If I had to personally associate with one, I’m not sure I could, especially an unrepentant one, but they all need our prayers.

    Is the slavery to sexual attraction to kids and acting it out an addiction like to alcohol, drugs, and sex? Probably. I am convinced that Jesus can heal the soul and maybe even the mind and heart to the extent that the person can live virtuously so as not to pluck fruit from the tree of grave disorders, but it has to be really, really hard. Your post has made me examine my conscience with regard to these offenders. They commit sins others can see, but according to the graces given to us individually, can we say that sins in our own hearts full of ill intentions invisible to others are any less repugnant to God?

    • Barb,
      They certainly need our prayers. Why they develop such aberrant desires in the first place, probably God only knows, and of course, ultimately only He can decide their fate. He alone knows them inside out–as He does all of us. You raise a good question: is sexual attraction to children to be placed in the same category as other harmful addictions? I wish I had an answer to that. I wouldn’t doubt that a number of them would rather not have such cravings but feel powerless to do anything about it. They indeed would be tortured souls.

      And yes, God knows I too at times have had “ill intentions invisible to others” and pray that God will forgive me for them. We’re all sinners in need of spiritual healing from the Great Physician.

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