Forgiveness is the subject of a new book by moral theologian Fr. Thomas Berg and clinical psychologist Dr. Timothy Lock, who both serve on the faculty of St. Joseph Seminary in Yonkers, NY. The book is called Choosing Forgiveness: Unleash the Power of God’s Grace, and they recently gave an interview to The Pillar about their book and the importance of forgiveness, properly understood. The book was born out of their shared experiences working with survivors of sexual abuse, including those whose abuse was perpetrated by Catholic clergy. Through their work they learned that the idea of forgiveness had to be treated very delicately in order to facilitate real healing and to avoid inflicting additional trauma.
During the interview, Fr. Berg gives an interesting meditation on whether Christians are obliged to forgive. In one way, we most certainly are. Our Lord tells us in many places, including among the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer, that unless we forgive those who offend us, we will not be forgiven. But Fr. Berg also says that this teaching at times has been weaponized, particularly in cases of abuse, where the perpetrator or those who should be coming to the aid of the victim put pressure on the victim to simply forgive, put the abuse behind them, and “move on.” This is a gravely cynical exploitation of Christian teaching on forgiveness. A true act of forgiveness must be done in freedom, without such coercion. Authentic forgiveness is empowering and profoundly healing for victims, Fr. Berg argues, because it contributes to the restoration of their dignity.
The two men note that much progress is made when survivors decide they truly want to forgive their abusers and conceive of forgiveness in terms of wanting what is good for the abuser. According to Fr. Berg, “To be able to want the good, the best, for someone who has hurt us, is often a valid litmus test of whether or not we are actually in a place of forgiveness. I might struggle to say ‘I forgive,’ but if I can say ‘I want the good for this person, I want them to be OK, I want them to find mercy and blessing’ — if I can say that and mean it, well, then I’m actually in a place of forgiveness.” Wanting the good for the perpetrator out of a desire to forgive is not incompatible with holding that person accountable for his/her crimes. Dr. Lock notes that the process of forgiveness can include reporting the abuse to authorities and participating in prosecution. “I can forgive him and I can testify to the crime he committed against me. If I forgive him, I am not prosecuting him as a punishment. I am prosecuting him for other reasons. For example, I know that child abusers tend to repeatedly abuse children. Perhaps I prosecute him with the hope of protecting other children from abuse, and that he will get the treatment and the help he needs, and also be removed permanently from those circumstances which could allow him to abuse in the future.”
This approach to forgiveness represents a shift away from “retributive justice,” which emphasizes the need to punish the offender for his/her crimes and which can foster adversarial relationships and cover-up, to “restorative justice,” which involves cooperation by all those affected by the offense to seek resolution. Restorative justice has healing as its ultimate aim – healing for the victim and for all involved. According to Fr. Berg, such a shift in mentality, “will require nothing less than a profound institutional examination of conscience, and quite frankly deep repentance on the level of the institutional Church. It will require years of much more honest truth-telling about the causes of this crisis, it will require us to dedicate more time–far more than we’ve mustered at present– to listen to victims and to their stories. It will require a radical return to being a Church self-consciously aware of its call–not to a regime of litigation and monetary rewards–but to the ministry of reconciliation.”