Thomas P Doyle
The understanding of forgiveness…
by Thomas P. Doyle


Vol. 1, No.2

Dec. 2, 2008

From a speech by Tom Doyle at SNAP convention, Chicago July 2008

Issue 4: The understanding of forgiveness

The doctrine of forgiveness forms the basis for yet another belief that becomes toxic when merged with the Church's response to sexual abuse. Most people misunderstand the theological concept and believe it means leaving the offense behind and essentially forgetting about it while forgoing any expectation of justice or punishment for the offender. How often have victims cringed at the words arrogantly uttered by a bishop or high ranking cleric that "we are a forgiving Church?" This attitude imposes misplaced guilt on the victims for their justifiably angry feelings against their perpetrators.

There is a significant degree of confusion about the meaning of forgiveness. When Church officials speak of it and ask victims to dutifully forgive their abusers, this easily translates into re-victimization. It is a conscious attempt to misuse a theological concept to avoid responsibility and accountability for the crime of abuse. To the victim, forgiveness may translate to acting and thinking as if the event did not happen and to the offender it translates into deliverance from taking responsibility for the abuse.

Victims are often reminded that forgiveness is at the core of the Christian belief system. They easily confuse the authentic notion of forgiveness with the feeling of forgiveness and the consequence that all is forgiven and forgotten. Yet most, perhaps all cannot feel any benevolence toward a sexual abuser. The feeling of justified though very intense anger simply cannot be controlled or willed away in the name of a misunderstood and certainly misused religious doctrine. Churchmen or others who urge forgiveness intentionally misinterpret the doctrine of forgiveness for their own selfish benefit. They also do not comprehend the depth of pain that comes from sexual abuse nor do they understand what re-victimization means.[13]

Beliefs about forgiveness quickly become toxic for the victim and for the institution as well. The victim experiences intense guilt over not being able to feel a sense of forgiveness. The institutional Church hinders its own painful growth toward pastoral authenticity by using forgiveness to push the whole issue into the shadows. Margaret Kennedy summed it up well: "Churches use the concept of forgiveness to short circuit the survival empowerment process…The Church cannot bear to hear about child sexual abuse, so the quicker a child forgives, the easier it is for the listener."[14]

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing” – Edmund Burke