The Sin of Forgiveness

Since the story of sexual abuse by former Father James Porter broke in the news media in May of 1992, my wife and I have personally received calls from over 3,300 survivors (as of December 1997). Only five calls have been at all negative. One was from an obviously irrational man who left a rather vile message on my answering machine also irrelevantly referring to the fact that I am Irish (actually a Polish, Irish, and French mix). Another hostile call was from a man who pretended to be a newspaper reporter from the Harvard Crimson. Later the Crimson told me they had never heard of him. A third call was from a priest who said he had seen me on TV, and that I was doing some good, but that he still thought I was influenced by the man downstairs. Lastly, two phone calls came from elderly-sounding women shortly after the story first broke. The gist of each of these separate calls was that I was immoral because I did not exercise Christian forgiveness towards Father Porter and the Catholic Church. Here is my answer.

When a person commits sexual assault it is a crime against society and an individual child. In the case of child sexual abuse, justice should always prevail over mercy or forgiveness for several reasons. The most important of these is for the protection of other children. I think you will find very few people who will argue that an armed robber should not receive justice through the criminal court procedures. When sexual assault of a child occurs another type of robbery has taken place. A child has been robbed of his or her innocence. In fact, the crime is even greater, for their childhood has been murdered. To let the sexual assault criminal off without any jail time is to send a signal to other perpetrators that they can get away with it, and that it is not a very important or serious crime. The victim who forgives the perpetrator before justice has been done is really just looking for the comfortable way out. It is emotionally very difficult to confront your perpetrator in court and the forgiveness rule provides a rationalization to avoid this.

One caller, a victim of a Catholic priest, informed me that he was unsure what to do because he feared that bringing discredit on the Catholic Church would be like throwing out the baby with the wash. The irony of his words did not dawn on me until later. To cover up child sexual abuse is to throw out the baby and to save the dirty wash water. It is precisely babies – ourselves, and potential future child victims – who are thrown away.

Before the Father Porter story became public, there were a few victims of his who were worried that we might be doing harm to Mr. Porter because he might have been cured of his evil tendencies. Other survivors of other perpetrators whom I have spoken to have had the same fear. Confronting the perpetrator would cause a disruption in the perpetrator’s family that they thought might not be warranted if the person was now reformed. The problem with this attitude is that the concern is centered on the wrong person. There is no rational reason to take the risk that a perpetrator is reformed when doing so endangers children. Former victims have direct knowledge that the perpetrator has done it before. No one can prove positive that the perpetrator will not do it again. Besides, there is also no way that we can know whether already there are other victims of whom we are unaware, because by its nature the sexual assault of children is a secret act.

We do not have the ethical right to protect the perpetrator from the consequences of his or her actions. The perpetrator must be judged based on what they have actually done, not what they may or may not do in the future. It is not cruelty to make a perpetrator pay for the consequences of his or her actions. It would be cruel to allow a perpetrator, who has not been exposed, loose on an unsuspecting community where children are thereby placed at risk.

Perpetrators by their nature are skilled manipulators. They are able to emotionally or even physically control children and can be very convincing, charming individuals. A perpetrator may produce crocodile tears and sincere sounding words of regret – the motive for which might be only to dissuade the victim from exposing the criminal acts. It is easier for the victim to let himself or herself be manipulated by the perpetrator’s expressions of remorse, because the victim wants to hear that the perpetrator is truly sorry. (I have even been told instances where the perpetrator would assault a child day after day and after each particular incident would cry and express remorse.) It is difficult for survivors to throw off the role of victim – to shed their feelings of shame for what was done to them. The perpetrators sometimes real appearing remorse makes it easy for the victim to remain silent. I believe that the only way to judge the honesty or sincerity of a perpetrator’s remorse is to wait until the day when the he or she is released from prison. If he or she then approaches a former victim and asks for forgiveness, perhaps the perpetrator could be believed sincere, since there might be no self protective motive. We must speak out.

To conclude, I refer you to one of the Survivor Proclamations – Perpetrators shall hide, not their victims.

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