A local story: A fireman—churchgoer, family man, pillar of the community—called 911 recently in obvious despair, telling the operator he was sitting at home with a gun in his hand and was about to kill himself. As the operator talked to him the man confessed that he had been molesting his now 14-year old stepdaughter for a number of months, was remorseful, and wanted the nightmare (his and hers) to end.
The newspaper allowed feedback comments on this story on its website (many responsible papers do not permit comments on stories likely to inflame passions. The comments were ugly but predictable—hang him without benefit of trial, put him in a cell with others and let the other prisoners know what he had done so they would “take care of the problem,” castrate him, etc. There were also several condemnatory comments to the effect that the 911 operator should be ashamed of herself for trying to talk the pervert out of committing suicide, even suggesting she should be fired for not letting the molester kill himself to save the state money.
Appalled by the community reaction, one citizen wrote a letter to the editor, which I have included below in its entirety (Press Journal, March 12, 2010):
To the editor:As we have come to expect, the ugly comments began anew, even after Ms. Hernandez' plea for compassion. Many of the writers expressed the view that they were Christians, but nevertheless believed that such acts against children were unforgivable and that Christianity could not tolerate such behavior, that such evil people were beyond hope and redemption and should be destroyed on earth and suffer in hell for eternity. One cynical self-described atheist laughed at the notion that prayer was anything but a waste of time.
I listened to the tape of a 911 operator speaking a man down from hurting himself as he had just confessed to molesting a 14-year-old girl, and there in the midst of my judging I found myself praying for this man.
It was very moving and I couldn’t help but remember that the Lord forgives us from even the most vile acts. I pray that he and his family can overcome all that has happened and that we remember that we are all worthy of forgiveness.
It’s a lot easier when you can look at people as being ill. And who among us wouldn’t pray for someone who was sick?
Here is a sampling of their comments:
I do pray for the man. I pray that he drops dead, but not until he gets abused in jail. Feel sorry for the piece-of-crap? I don't think so!I wrote a comment in response both in defense of the original letter writer and to counter the viciousness of the comments being made by purported Christians who denied that forgiveness was possible for child molesters.
He is not "sick" he is evil. I'll save my prayer for the little girl he injured. She is the one carrying around the true burden. Children are fragile and should be cared for with love not sexual abuse. This step father is supposed to shield her from the world! This pig should have expressed his repentance by sticking that gun into his mouth and pulling the trigger. Only then would I agree that he has expressed true remorse. Laura, why do you identify with the oppressor and not the afflicted? Is that what you gain out of the scriptures?
The 911 operator should have encouraged the man to kill himself to save the taxpayers money.
The letter writer has expressed the appropriate Christian sentiments—forgiveness after true confession and repentance. Isn’t that response an accurate reflection of "what would Jesus do?" Isn’t that the model of appropriate conduct to which we aspire?
I agree with those who believe that prayer is futile if prayer means expecting a conversational partner at the other end. That is not the point—prayer is also an attitude of reverence and introspection that reminds us that we all fall short in our behavior and that “falling short” includes expressing the hateful and non-Christian attitudes of the preceding posts.
Consider this—if forgiveness is not possible for you, then being a Christian is not possible for you. Christianity is all about forgiving.However the question at hand is whether it is reasonable to talk about “forgiveness” of child molesters, and if it is, under what circumstances is forgiveness reasonable, and what, in practical terms, does forgiveness mean? Does “forgiveness” mean that child molesters should be allowed back into society after their sentence is over? [This molestation was not of strangers, it was an opportunistic molestation within the family, so we probably do not need to conclude that there is a danger to society by this perpetrator.] Should we continue to keep molesters out of society by virtual life in prison? Should we incarcerate them again after their sentence for “treatment” which we know will not “cure” them? Or prohibit where they can live? Post their names and addresses on websites so they cannot get jobs? Make them wear a scarlet “P” wherever they go, so that decent people can avoid them?
Of course nothing that I said about the Christian value of forgiveness means that those who commit crimes such as molestation should not be reported to the police and face judicial punishment.
Remember that forgiveness comes after the penitent has confessed, is truly sorry, and accepts the consequences of his actions. It does not mean that consequences of serious criminal or immoral actions are ignored.
Contrary to the mean-spirited comments, Ms. Hernandez is courageous to be able to express her views of Christian compassion in a community of vengeful hatemongers who do not grasp the fundamentals of what it means to be a Christian.
The Roman Catholic Church is facing a serious crisis with the priest sexual abuse and molestation scandal that has erupted into public view once again. We have instances of widespread sexual abuse in Ireland, Germany, Spain, Italy, the United States, Canada, Australia, and throughout the world. The Church’s response to the crisis and to the victims of molestation and pedophilia has been odd, slow, belligerent, denial, secretive, abysmal, appalling, unbelievable, and inexcusable. Almost any negative adjective will do.
We have seen credible evidence that Vatican officials have known about this problem for years and have chosen to protect the church from scandal rather than protect the victims from abuse. We have seen credible evidence that the Pope had a direct role in returning pedophiles to parishes in Germany when he was Archbishop of Munich. We have seen credible evidence that as head of the office in the Vatican responsible for disciplining priests for 21 years that Cardinal Joseph Rattinger issued orders for Bishops to be secretive about handling charges of sexual misconduct. We have seen evidence that the Vatican ignored the problem until it could no longer be ignored. We saw on Easter Sunday that the Pope ignored the crisis and the Pope’s spokesman blamed the Press for unwarranted attacks on the Church based on malicious “gossip.”
So how do we respond to the Catholic Church over this institutional problem that seems to have infected it so completely? It is apparent that there are many sexual abusers in the Church still functioning as priests. It is apparent that the Church is still in denial about the extent and seriousness of the problem and apparently believes that the scandal will go away if they keep stalling any inquiries, deny requests for information, and refuse to acknowledge and confess their guilt except in a very vague and general way. They are still insistent that the Pope saw nothing and heard nothing and was in no way responsible for the current problem, an assertion that stretches incredulity to the limit.
The Church wants forgiveness. In the Christian sense of what forgiveness means, it is only possible if there is genuine acknowledgement, confession and repentance and if the perpetrator accepts responsibility for his actions and the consequences (financial and legal) of what he has done. In the case of the Catholic Church there are some very specific implications: not only must individual priests acknowledge their guilt and accept the legal consequences of their actions in courts of law, the Church itself and its hierarchy must accept responsibility right at the top of the organization—and that means that the Pope himself must acknowledge his role in covering up immoral and illegal acts by priests and take responsibility for the Church’s moral failure in its effort to protect itself at the expense of those it was charged to care for. It must also act to protect its members from abusive priests by turning over to law enforcement whatever it knows about molesters and abusers, and then defrock and excommunicate priests who have betrayed their office and the public trust. Only then will we be able to take its confession seriously.
As a society, and regardless of our particular religious persuasion, it seems to me that we need a serious rethinking of how we handle perpetrators of sexual offenses against children, and how, and on what terms, we forgive perpetrators of sexual abuse and molestation.