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Could a TRC help heal the wounds of the Catholic Church?

Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRCs) have been used in several instances to address violence and traumatic rupture in the social fabric of nation states, with mixed results. South Africa’s TRC was arguably the most successful at laying the groundwork for a social and spiritual healing process for the nation. Such a TRC could lead to restorative justice for survivors of clergy sexual and physical abuse and their perpetrators. It would also provide a public ritual of atonement to reveal the multifarious abuses in a social context and attribute personal responsibility to those clerics who perpetrated them as well as the bishops and others who were complicit.

The ongoing revelations of abuse have now come home to Bakersfield with a story in today’s Bakersfield Californian. According to the Californian a now 35-year-old Bakersfield man alleges he was molested for two years from 1991 to 1993 by the Rev. Hermy Dave O. Ceniza who worked at St. Francis Catholic Church. “The suit says Bishop John T. Steinbock met privately with the teen for two hours in 1993, and Steinbock promised Ceniza would no longer be a priest or have access to children.” Recently, the man followed up to allegedly find out that Ceniza is still working as a priest in the Philippines.

The story, like so many others, indicates that higher clerical authorities had full knowledge of abusing behavior yet played a type of shell game with priests in an effort to safeguard the reputation of the Church. This routine also allowed pedophile priests to continue working in an era when many individuals were leaving the priesthood and new recruits were few and far between.

A TRC would require testimony by each accused priest in a public forum, in front of the survivors and their families and the general public. South Africa’s TRC was televised and broadcast throughout the nation. Coverage of such a process by major international news media would force the Church to acknowledge its own complicity in the actions of individual priests. A panel of judges would have to be assembled from outside the Church for such an action to garner any validity with the public. It has been painfully clear that Benedict XVI is unwilling or unable to take responsibility for any of the trauma wrought on innocents.

Since the Church is a different body from a nation state, revisions from the South African model would be required--perhaps led by such a body as Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu, and Nelson Mandela’s group, The Elders. Such a response may be what is needed to salvage the spirits, hearts, and minds of the survivors of this abuse, as well as to salvage the Church itself.


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