We have no Right to Scorn

Fr. Benedict Groeschel has had a profound influence on me.  There are very few living spiritual teachers whose writings have more consistently informed and inspired me than have Fr. Groeschel’s.  My first encounter with him was through his book Spiritual Passages: The Psychology of Spiritual Development “for Those Who Seek” (1983).  This was the book that first and best introduced me to the threefold path of the Christian mystical spirituality: the purgative way, the illuminative way and the unitive way.  A short version of this book – Questions and Answers about your Journey to God (2007) – is one that I actually travel with (it is always in my backpack) because I am constantly consulting it — it is just that basic to my spiritual being, thinking and doing.  His book on the Creed, Praying with the Creed (2007), is one that I have used devotionally with great profit more than once, as is his book of Advent devotions, Behold He Comes (2001), and his book of Communion meditations, Praying In the Presence of the Lord (1999).  His book on the persistent necessity of reform and renewal in the Spiritual life and the church, The Reform of Renewal (1990), is a book that has directly informed my approach to ministry.  His book, Arise from Darkness: What to do When Life Doesn’t Make Sense (1995), is on my beside table right now and is about half read, and his book The Journey to God: Following in the Footsteps of the great Spiritual Writers is in my stack of “next reads,” just waiting for me to get to it — about three books away.  But deserving of special mention because of their profound and continuing impact on me are two of Benedict Groeschel’s books: Praying to the Lord Jesus Christ: Prayers and Meditations Through the Centuries (2004) and I am with You Always (2010). 

                                      

I spent most of last year (2011) with I am with You Always.  This is the kind of book that I really love – a historical survey – of a subject that I am really passionate about – Christian Spirituality.  Broadly ecumenical, generous in spirit and Christ-centered, this book just may be the best survey of Christian Spirituality that I have ever read.  I can’t speak highly enough of this book.  As I read it I was constantly being introduced to spiritual guides from other parts of the church in different eras of her history.  I would regularly find what Fr. Groeschel said about these spiritual guides to be so compelling that I would have to stop reading him, go and read them for a while, only to come back to Fr. Groeschel for more when I was finished with them.  It took the better part of the year for me to work my way through I am with You Always reading it this way, but it was a rich and deeply satisfying process.

 

Next to the Book of Common Prayer, Praying to the Lord Jesus Christ is the most frequently used spiritual resource that I have.  I just love this book!  Again, it has the feel of a historical survey to me, but it is not a history book. It is a devotional guide.  It gives shape and content to the New Testament’s witness to the church’s apostolic experience of worshipping the Lamb (Revelation 5).  I found this book at about the same time that I was reading Larry Hurtado’s Lord Jesus Christ:  Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianityand it transformed that read for me from a rich intellectual exercise to a profound act of devotion.  Martin Luther said that all theology should be done from our knees, and Praying to the Lord Jesus Christ enabled me to do this while reading some of the most important theology that has been written in the last decade.

 As I said, Fr. Benedict Groeschel has had a profound spiritual impact on me.  In fact, I can’t think of another living spiritual guide who has spoken to me as often or as profoundly as has Fr. Groeschel.  And so, I was very sad to hear this report on the news one evening recently –

 NY priest apologizes for sex abuse comments By DEEPTI HAJELA, Associated Press – Aug 30, 2012 

NEW YORK (AP) — A New York priest apologized Thursday after coming under criticism for saying that priests accused of child sex abuse are often seduced by their accusers and that a first-time offender should not go to jail. The Rev. Benedict Groeschel of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal made the comments in an interview with the National Catholic Register published this week. The website for the conservative independent Register then removed the story and posted an apology for publishing the comments. Groeschel and the friars did as well. Asked about working with priests involved in abuse, Groeschel said, “Suppose you have a man having a nervous breakdown, and a youngster comes after him. A lot of the cases, the youngster — 14, 16, 18 — is the seducer.” He also added later that anyone involved “on their first offense, they should not go to jail because their intention was not committing a crime.”

Really? 

In this day when the church’s sad history of sexual abuse is more fully known and the damage it has done is well understood, how could anyone defend and/or try to excuse its perpetrators?  Fr. Groeschel is not just wrong on this, what he said is destructive.  Fortunately, both Fr. Groeschel and his order understand this and the damage that his remarks have done.  Within hours of the interview in which his comments were made, these apologies were issued-

The Community of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal sincerely apologizes for the comments made by Fr. Benedict Groeschel in an interview released yesterday by the National Catholic Register, online edition. In that interview, Fr. Benedict made comments that were inappropriate and untrue. A child is never responsible for abuse. Any abuser of a child is always responsible, especially a priest. Sexual abuse of a minor is a terrible crime and should always be treated as such. We are sorry for any pain his comments may have caused. Fr. Benedict has dedicated his life to helping others and these comments were completely out of character. He never intended to excuse abuse or implicate the victims. We hope that these unfortunate statements will not overshadow the great good Fr. Benedict has done in housing countless homeless people, feeding innumerable poor families, and bringing healing, peace and encouragement to so many.

Fr. Benedict helped found our community 25 years ago with the hope of bringing the healing peace of Jesus Christ to our wounded world. Our desire has always been to lift up humanity and never to hurt. About seven years ago, Fr. Benedict was struck by a car and was in a coma for over a month. In recent months his health, memory and cognitive ability have been failing. He has been in and out of the hospital. Due to his declining health and inability to care for himself, Fr. Benedict had moved to a location where he could rest and be relieved of his responsibilities. Although these factors do not excuse his comments, they help us understand how such a compassionate man could have said something so wrong, so insensitive, and so out of character. Our prayers are with all those who have been hurt by his comments, especially victims of sexual abuse.

Fr. Benedict Groeschel himself issued this apology, quite likely that these are the last public words that we will ever hear from him –

I apologize for my comments. I did not intend to blame the victim. A priest (or anyone else) who abuses a minor is always wrong and is always responsible. My mind and my way of expressing myself are not as clear as they used to be. I have spent my life trying to help others the best that I could. I deeply regret any harm I have caused to anyone.

I take Fr. Groeschel at his word.  I’m sure that he deeply regrets what he said, and I want to believe what he said about not having the clarity of thought and expression that he once possessed.  One source I read said that his Order, the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, have had to treat him in this matter as many of us have had to treat aging parents with diminishing cognitive capacities and motor skills – they have “taken away his car keys.”   And so Fr. Groeschel is finished.  He will not be making any further public statements.  His television appearances have unceremoniously ended.  He has clearly written his last book.  He has conducted his last interview.  Fr. Groeschel will not be heard from again.  His community will surround him with love and care and respect until that day when his faith becomes sight.  But what are we who have looked to him for spiritual counsel through the years to do now?  Have his last words, as mistaken and destructive as they were, forever disqualified him as a reliable spiritual guide for the future?  Can he continue to be read with appreciation and turned to for guidance, or will he now forever sit under a cloud of suspicion and criticism because his last public statement was so far outside the lines?

 Well, following my initial shock and disappointment with what Fr. Groeschel said, my thinking about what I am going to do with him moving forward from this unfortunate and inglorious end has been informed by what two other spiritual guides I look to have written about forgiveness.

 Lewis Smedes in his book on forgiveness Forgive and Forget (1984) – a truly important book with a truly bad and even misleading title – talked about the miracle of “magic eyes” that forgiveness requires.  Nothing undoes the damage that a hurtful action or a hateful word causes.  Forgiveness doesn’t change that. What forgiveness does is to change the way that we look at the person who said the hateful word or did the hurtful thing to us.  Forgiveness doesn’t ask us to somehow pretend that no damage was done.  What it does ask us to do is to see that the hateful, hurtful thing that has been done to us is not the only thing that the person who did it has ever done to us.  That they have hurt us is not the only truth about them, or even necessarily the deepest truth about them.  This is the miracle of “magic eyes.”   Lewis wrote –

 As we forgive, we gradually come to see the deeper truth about them, a truth our hate blinds us to, a truth we can only see when we separate them from what they did to us.  When we heal our memories we are not playing games, we are not making believe.  We see the truth again.  For the truth about those who hurt us is that they are weak, needy, and fallible human beings.  They were people before they hurt us and they are people after they hurt us.  They were needy and weak before they hurt us and they were weak and needy after they hurt us.  They needed our help, our support, our comfort before they did us wrong; and they need it still. They are not only people who hurt us; this is not the deepest truth about them.  Our hate wants to cloak them, top to bottom, only in the rags of their rotten deed.   But the magic eyes of forgiving look beneath the tattered rags and let us see the truth. (27-28)

 What this means is that as misguided as were Fr. Groeschel’s last public comments, I will not permit them to cloud the fact that Fr. Groeschel made other public comments in the course of his long and productive ministry. That he said these hurtful words and that they were wrong is clear.  But that he has said other things, things that are profoundly true and filled with great spiritual understanding, is also true.  And so, while I cannot ignore or excuse Fr. Groeschel’s last public words, I will not let those last public words somehow invalidate all of his other public words.  I choose to see him with “magic eyes,” and to listen to him with “magic ears.”   I am choosing to believe that the words that Fr. Groeschel spoke that have forced him from public life into the seclusion of retirement in his community are not the only words, nor are they truest words, that speak of what is in his depths. That’s the first thing that I am doing with Fr. Groeschel.  I am choosing to remember that there is more to him that this last unfortunate episode.

 The other thing that I am doing with Fr. Groeschel is what Jerry Cook said that forgiveness entails in his book Love, Acceptance & Forgiveness (1979) –

 I like Catherine Marshall’s concept of forgiveness as she develops it in her book Something More.  She suggests that forgiveness is releasing another from your personal judgment. Taking your personal judgment off a person doesn’t mean you agree with what he has said or done.  It simply means that you will not act as his judge.  You will not pronounce a guilty verdict on him… Forgive, and you’ll be forgiven.  Judge not, and you’ll not be judged.  That’s in the Word (see Luke 6:37).  Release people from your personal judgment!  For unless I can be assured of your forgiveness, I cannot really open myself to you.  You see, I know that sooner or later I will disappoint you and fail you.   Not by design or desire, but I am imperfect; I’m still under construction.  I must know that you will not condemn me when my weaknesses and flaws and sins begin to show.  I need the assurance of your forgiveness – a forgiveness with no bitter aftertaste. (20-21)

 Because I know that I am going to need mercy for stupid things that I will no doubt say and do in the future, I choose mercy for Fr. Groeschel.  I take my judgment off of him, and pray that he will know the peace of grace in Christ throughout his remaining days; for that, after all, is what the man taught me so well, so often and so deeply in his books.  DBS+

 

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