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‘Re-dressing’ victims’ wounds

06 May 2022

Listening to abuse survivors is central to the Church’s task, says Andrew Graystone

Ascar Studios/Alamy Stock Photo

The Good Samaritan engraved by the Dalziel Brothers, after a print by Sir John Everett Millais

The Good Samaritan engraved by the Dalziel Brothers, after a print by Sir John Everett Millais

THE first step in healing the crisis of abuse is for the Church to devote very extended time to self-examination and repentance. This is a painful process, but utterly necessary. The secular rush towards “Lessons Learned”, which currently characterises the Church’s approach, entirely circumvents the most fundamental lesson, which is that the Church is broken beyond its own repair. Until the Church is able to cry out to God for mercy to staunch its own wounds, it will be continually frustrated.

The most urgent need of the Church in the face of the abuse crisis is not for improved management or presentation, but for transparency, humility, and spiritual leadership that drives it to its knees. Only when the Church enters deeply into its own woundedness will it find Christ waiting there to receive it.

The second step towards mending is for leaders of the Church to draw very close to victims and devote extended time to listening to them. One might assume that victims do not want to meet church leaders, but the opposite is usually the case. The priest and the Levite will certainly have some explaining to do when they arrive back on the scene. In practice, it is church leaders who, like the priest and the Levite, seem to find it distasteful to come close to open wounds.

The motivation for listening to victims as they show their wounds is not that, by doing so, the Church can offer some form of healing. It is the very reverse. The Church needs to attend scrupulously to the wounds of victims for a long time, until it is convinced of its own helplessness.

Although I am speaking of the Church in the abstract here, this kind of engagement can, of course, be performed only by individuals’ giving consistent attention to individual victims. Embracing the wounded victim is central to the vocation of priesthood, and to the Christian mission of the Church — not because the Church has power to heal itself, or its neighbours, but because it needs to acknowledge that it does not.

FOR individuals called to take on this role on behalf of the Church, it will be costly and very time-consuming, but it is as high a privilege as attending to the broken body of Christ. Many church leaders fail to understand this role and act as if, in their dealings with victims, they are being asked vicariously to make good the acts of a previous generation, for which they may feel somewhat grudgingly responsible.

The contemporary Church and its leaders should take upon themselves the responsibility for the abuse perpetrated by their predecessors, not to assuage inherited guilt, nor because they want to save the Church from public disgrace, nor to reverse its decline, but precisely because Christ is to be discovered in the wounds of the victim.

For that reason, the involvement of victims in the process of reconciliation is not a box-ticking exercise, but a part of the spiritual journey towards healing for the Church. The wounded victim is the closest neighbour to the wounding Church, and neither can find healing without the other. There is no surer route to the heart of Christ than through the wounds of victims. That is why the first clear sign that restoration is dawning is not the returning health of the victim, but the humility of the Church.

It is vital that the Church does not imagine that it has anything to offer or to gain by mending broken people. That does not mean, however, that the Church has no part to play. The function of the Church towards survivors of abuse is simple and profound. It is to “re-dress” the victim by robustly reversing the message of the abuser with the truth of Christ.

The goal is the restoration of the personhood of wounded individuals, which is their reconciliation with God through Christ, and which ultimately leads to reconciliation between persons and communities. The key dynamic in restoration is to reverse the impact of abuse on the personhood of the victim. This is what is described in the Ordinal as “the cure of souls”. It is at the core of the Church’s mission, and it can be achieved only by love.

LIKE the oil and wine poured on the victim’s wounds, the actions of the attentive Church affirm the worth and identity of the broken victim. Reaffirming the beauty and dignity of the wounded individual is possible only if church leaders are able to own their own wounds. The Church needs to be a body that enables survivors to reframe damaged perceptions of themselves.

Only when the Church has entered deeply into its own wounds and the wounds of the victim can it begin to “re-dress” them. Even then, it is with the understanding that restorative justice can only ever be partial. Even if the wounds of the past can be healed, the scars will remain.

So, the Church needs to approach its engagement with victims, not asking how much it needs to do to repay its debts, but with the humility of understanding that it can never do enough.

This is an edited extract from
Falling Among Thieves: Understanding and responding to church-related abuse by Andrew Graystone, a tract published by the William Temple Foundation. Download it here.

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