Forgiveness has nothing to do with justice: we confuse them at our peril

Once more the Roman Catholic Church is reeling from a paedophile scandal. The BBC screened a documentary, Abused: Breaking the Silence, about the case on Tuesday evening. Before it was screened, Peter Stanford, ex-editor of the Catholic Herald, wrote about his horror at discovering that the man whom he admired as a priest and a friend, and who had married him, had an appalling secret from the past. Stanford raises some very interesting points about betrayal, the past, trust, forgiveness and retribution. Not to mention his faith.

The BBC documentary inevitably, and rightly, concentrates on the abuse endured by the victims, and on the Rosminian order’s refusal thus far to accept moral or financial liability. I do not mean to ignore or belittle these central issues arising from the case by concentrating on the different, and more generic ones that also flow from Peter Stanford’s piece. The former issues have already been explored at length, and I have little to add. No matter how often these disgraceful acts are condemned, nor by how many different commentators, they continue to elude us in their horror and unimaginable consequences. But after the condemnations, we are still left with the brutal fact that the people thus condemned exist, and will continue to exist. We are left, as Peter Stanford was, to pick up the pieces even though we were not ourselves victims.

Central to the dilemma set out in Stanford’s article is the fact that people are not homogeneous. The tabloids may be content with simplistic labels such as “monster”, “pervert”, “sicko” and the like, but their concern is selling papers, not illuminating the human condition. The division between good and evil does not run between people, but within them, within us. Fr Cunningham was both “monster” and “amiable, kindly, dedicated parish priest”. He didn’t stop being the latter once the former was discovered. We want people to be either heroes or villains, but in truth that is not how we, any of us, are. My understanding of this case is that Fr Cunningham committed these offences in the 1960s but not during his subsequent time as a parish priest. I make this point not to suggest that as it was a long time ago, it doesn’t matter, but rather to point out that this fracture within ourselves between good and evil is often further complicated by not only moral distance, but by temporal distance as well. It raises other moral issues: if, as we are frequently told, paedophiles can never be reformed, that they pose a perpetual risk throughout their lives, what should we make of such a person who stops offending? Does that make them heroic victors over their carnal lusts, or deceivers biding their time, perhaps merely “unlucky” enough not to light upon further victims? Is the good that a person does annihilated by the evil that they have also done? I think that to suggest so is to treat moral conduct like mathematics. A positive number multiplied by a negative number is always a negative number, and thus we give unwitting credence to the notion that evil is more powerful than good. The good someone does cannot render the evil things good, but neither does the evil render the good things evil.

It is true that justice is denied as long as it remains delayed. But for Christians, at least, justice is not the same thing as forgiveness. Justice must always keep track of time, but forgiveness need not. In fact, one might say, forgiveness should be blind to time. Peter Stanford writes that “for forgiveness, there must also be genuine acknowledgement of the damage done.” I wonder about that. It seems to me that forgiveness is not conditional in that way. When Jesus said to those wanting to kill the woman taken in adultery, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone” he was alluding to that fracture between good and evil that runs through all of us. And when he said to the woman, “Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more” he did not first demand that she confessed to her cuckolded husband, or acknowledge the wickedness of her actions. His eyes were resolutely on the future, not on the past. He did not suggest that the woman ask for other offences to be also taken into account. His prescription is devastating in its simplicity. “Go, and sin no more.” That is not justice. But it is forgiveness.

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