“There’s an elephant in church!”

Imagine the scene at Sunday Mass. A child cries out “Mommy, there is an elephant in church!” And people are talking about this elephant. In today’s church, there are certainly many people talking about the elephant of clerical sexual abuse and coverup. But are we all talking about the same thing?

6 Blind Men “See” an Elephant

There is an ancient story that might help us see.

Once upon a time, there lived six blind men in a village. One day the villagers told them, “Hey, there is an elephant in the village today.” They had no idea what an elephant is. They decided, “Even though we would not be able to see it, let us go and feel it anyway.”All of them went where the elephant was. Everyone of them touched the elephant.

“Hey, the elephant is a pillar,” said the first man who touched his leg.
“Oh, no! it is like a rope,” said the second man who touched the tail.
“Oh, no! it is like a thick branch of a tree,” said the third man who touched the trunk of the elephant.
“It is like a big hand fan” said the fourth man who touched the ear of the elephant.
“It is like a huge wall,” said the fifth man who touched the belly of the elephant.
“It is like a solid pipe,” Said the sixth man who touched the tusk of the elephant.

They began to argue about the elephant and each insisted that he was right. A wise man was passing by asked them, “What is the matter?” With great certitude, each one of them told what he thought the elephant was like.

The wise man calmly explained to them, “All of you are right. The reason every one of you is telling it differently because each one of you touched the different part of the elephant. So, actually, the elephant has all those features what you all said.”

The moral of the story is that there may be some truth to what someone says. Sometimes we can see that truth and sometimes not because they may have different experiences. So, rather than arguing like the blind men, maybe we should say, “Maybe you have your reasons.”  and try to understand what I have missed. I suspect it would give us a fuller picture.

The scandals of clergy sexual abuse and justice

It seems to me we must talk about the many scandals of clergy sexual abuse.

  • There is the horror of what happened to the victims and how it affects the rest life of their life.
  • There is the scandal of those who should have known or actually may have known and done little or nothing. Bystander guilt takes many forms.
  • There is the scandal of judging every priest or bishop guilty by association.  The majority of priests or bishops are just as horrified, if not more so than others.

There are many questions related to justice. The traditional questions are

  • What laws have been broken?
  • Who did it?
  • What do the offender(s) deserve?

But justice also asks questions about

  • Who has been hurt? The obvious and not so obvious victims.
  • What are their needs?
  • Whose obligations are these?
  • What are the causes?
  • Who has a stake in the situation?
  • What is the appropriate process to involve stakeholders in an effort to address causes and put things right?

The Question of Focus

It is clear to me from what I have experienced and read so far that each of us has different experiences of the elephant in church. That experience seems to focus light on one or other of the questions.

As I have written elsewhere I have walked with victims and abusers, guilty bystanders and those whose only guilt is by association. At this point, my main question is “What would Jesus Do”?

He responded in a variety of ways to hypocrisy and other sins – overthrowing tables, writing in the sand,  forgiving criminals on the cross, asking questions about who went away from the temple justified, waking with and eating with sinners, cursing the barren fig tree, figuratively hanging millstones around necks, etc. In more than one situation he rebuked his angry apostles even when they drew the sword to defend him. He challenged all to think not as humans do but as God does.

As the wise man implied he had his reasons for each situation. His message was that God loves each and every one of us sinners… even as he challenges and invites us to grow.

What Is Your Focus?

What part of the problem have I experienced most directly?
Have I listened to those who have experienced other aspects of the problem?
When I pray about this am I telling God what to do or listening for God to speak?

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