For a couple of decades now colleagues and I have been working with the aftermath of generations of clergy abuse. The abuse involved both ordained and lay clergy, and effected scores, probably hundreds, of children and young adults. The abuse came at the hands of Christians, both Protestant and Catholic. Over the years the various teams have consisted of Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and others. They include chaplains, therapists, attorneys, and healers.
Lately, several of us have been visited by meditative visions of Jesus. The Jesus in these visitations is not the Protestant Jesus I grew up with. Rather than a white man in flowing robes, this Jesus is the Jesus of Spain and Latin America, the Jesus of the broken heart. The Jesus in our visions is scarred and deeply grieved. Others in our team have been visited by the broken-hearted Mary. Both seem aggrieved at the way we treat one another, and especially, children.
Clergy abuse takes a terrible toll on children and their families. It undermines the faith of non-offending clergy and lay people, and of entire communities. Imagine the confusion of children and adults who were taught to see clergy as infallible, always to be respected and followed, and the voice of God on Earth. Abuse also shatters the lives of many abusers. Hurting children was the one thing Jesus said was unforgivable. Imagine the agony of the abusers, people who sought to live their lives for God, yet betrayed the very core of his teachings. Imagine them following some overwhelming compulsion to harm, perhaps driven by their own experiences of abuse, while looking to the afterlife and the terrible consequences of their actions.
Of course, clergy abuse has a long history in North America, especially for Native peoples. Horrific abuse took place wherever clergy had access to children: in residential schools, orphanages, and sanitariums, amongst other places. (Oddly, my mother spoke of the time she spent being treated in a tuberculosis sanitarium as one of the happiest of her life.)
I, like many eastern Natives, was raised in that Appalachian, “Bible thumping, fire and brimstone,” tradition of Protestantism. There was much focus on a vengeful but rewarding god, and a joyful future in the afterlife, or eternal suffering in Damnation. Every effort was made to scare children into repenting for sins, and accepting Jesus as “Lord and Savior”. This was another form of abuse.
There was also a counter thread in which compassion and forgiveness sought to surface. Somehow these factions seemed never to be reconciled, maintaining antithetical, parallel tracks across the landscape of faith. It is this tension which appears at the very core of clergy abuse.
Having been visited by a Broken Hearted Jesus, I find myself wondering how that Jesus was lost to so much of Protestant Christianity. Protestantism seems more focused on an early Old Testament god, a god condoning violence, genocide, and slavery, and threatening damnation. Even though Catholicism has maintained images of the “Heart of Jesus”, I often come away from our work with a strong sense that in Catholicism, too, the Old Testament god is more feared. It is as though the generosity and compassion of Jesus became obscured by the fearsome image of a brutal god.
Diane Glancy, a prolific and engaging Mixed Blood writer, suggested in The Dream of a BrokenField, the Old Testament god was the god of the early French missionaries who converted the Native peoples of the North. She believes the missionaries who came further south followed the broken hearted Jesus of our visions. The Jesus who shed blood for the liberation and salvation of all peoples has enormous appeal for many Native peoples in the Americas. In part, this reflects similarities between traditional Native myths and ceremonies, and the Jesus story. Glancy suggests Native people were also drawn to Jesus, as were peoples brought here from Africa, as offering understanding, compassion, and hope in the face of the unthinkable.
As I do this work, I am often reminded of Jesus’ teachings regarding the centrality of children, and that what we do to children, we do to him. Having been visited by Jesus, his pierced and broken heart clearly visible, I am struck by his suffering. I am aware our failing to live as he taught us adds to his hurt, and am reminded that those who abuse also suffer. Finally, I understand that without healing, what is done to us as children, we may do to others, and for untold generations.