My friend Andy Hamilton just published a really great piece in Eureka Street, the online magazine of the Australian Jesuits, about notions of original sin and the abuse crisis. The original piece, and so much other great stuff, can be found here. But I've also pasted it below.
If you're skeptical about reading ANOTHER article about sexual abuse, or original sin for that matter, try to give it a shot anyway. Andy's got a unique and interesting take on the problem that our societies face in light of not only the sexual abuse crisis but other social ills as a result of our current images (or lack thereof) of sin. I really cannot recommend it highly enough.
Original sin and clergy sex abuse
Being a Catholic priest during public enquiries into sexual abuse within the Church is a bracing experience. Infinitely less hurtful than being the victim of abuse, of course. But it prompts musing about the ways in which evil actions work out in a group and affect the individual members of the group and its perception by others.
In many cultures these questions run so deep they can be caught only through symbol. In Greek myths and tragedies they are explored through what happens in a family, or house, in which monstrous deeds are fated. They taint the house and work their way destructively through later generations. In the stories connected with Oedipus, for example, the consequences are fated and individuals are passive before them. Their best efforts to escape only create the circumstances of the doom that awaits them and those associated with them.
The proper response to such events when embodied in drama is one of terror and pity. This is how we would respond to a natural disaster when allowed to enter the human experience of those caught in it.
The Christian teaching about original sin can helpfully be seen through the lens of this myth. It understands the whole of humanity to be affected by a taint which goes back to Adam's sin. Its consequences are death. The curse that in the Greek tragedies affected particular families or groups is now universal.
This view of the world also appears to be quite pessimistic in assuming that the disastrous human condition cannot be remedied by human activity. Indeed it is more pessimistic than the earlier myths, because the doom does not attach only to particular groups but to the whole human race. All human beings and the groups to which they belong are equally flawed.
But in its Christian context the universality of original sin is a cause for optimism because we are healed from it by Christ. Neither individuals nor groups are doomed by fate. We are never helpless victims or collaborators of groups tainted by the evil that has been done by them. The evil that's been done can be repented of, apologised for, its causes addressed and reconciliation sought by attending justly and compassionately to its victims.
Within the Christian framework those watching this drama can respond with outrage at what has been done, encouragement for what is being done to address it, and analysis of what needs to be done. They are not passive spectators. But neither can they separate themselves from the group. They are aware of their own shared flaw and their shared good fortune at being rescued from original sin.
As a Christian understanding of the human condition this account has its limitations. And in any case it no longer has a strong claim on the public imagination. What has replaced it in public attitudes to the ways in which wrongdoing and guilt affect groups is also unhelpful in many ways.
When the canopy of universal sin and forgiveness is taken down, wrongdoing is commonly seen as marking a person for life. The proper response is harsh punishment and subsequent ostracism. Similarly, groups in which wrongdoing has occurred, like the Catholic Church, are seen to be corrupt. Apologies are not heartfelt; tears shed for the victims of abuse are crocodile tears; steps to ensure accountability of ministers or the protection of children are window dressing. Those associated with the Church are automatically and lastingly suspect. They can wash away their taint only by renouncing their membership.
At one level attitudes like this do not matter. Indeed at a personal level they can be salutary. In Christian tradition to be regarded as rubbish and to be beaten up are a privileged way of following Christ, not to mention a way of sharing some of what victims have suffered in the Catholic Church.
The real loss from such attitudes is incurred by society. The groups and individuals that are seen in this way will find it harder, not easier, to make up for what they have been part of and to contribute to healing in society. They risk being distracted from what really matters in all this - the welfare of the victims of abuse. Making boxers punch drunk in training is no way to prepare them for the big fight.