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Purifying language vital to renewing 'polluted' churches

  • 01 September 2016


The crimes of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, and in other institutions, have generated a wide literature. It encompasses the experience of victims, the institutional causes of clerical abuse and the steps needed to do justice to its victims and to ensure it does not happen again.

Other writing offers help to victims to deal with their experience. An impressive example of this last category points to a wider challenge to our society. Jane Dowling's Child Arise! The Courage to Stand. A spiritual handbook for survivors of sexual abuse — which last month was named the Australian Christian Book of the Year — is addressed to Christians who have suffered abuse within the Church and whose faith is still central to them. Many, of course, have understandably abandoned it.

Dowling, who herself was a victim of clerical abuse, offers a program of reflections that bring together scriptural themes and the effects of sexual abuse by church representatives. Most striking in her book is the extraordinary labour required to purify the language of a tradition that has become polluted.

Christian prayer to God as Father, for example, will necessarily evoke images of abuse by reverend fathers who have abused, refused to acknowledge or take responsibility for the crime and have blamed the victim. From her own experience Dowling insists on the need to feel the full weight of fear, anger and betrayal associated with the image before seeking the richer possibilities in the scriptural tradition.

This process of resting with the associations of abuse attached to Christian words and images and slowly recovering their humane depths needs to be repeated again and again before the tradition can become life-giving.

This laborious and exacting process suggests that purifying the wells of a polluted tradition depends on a very slow reading that only experience can enable. It must be undertaken by those who have suffered from the pollution and not by those who have shaped, controlled and opened the language to poisoning.

Furthermore this purification of language is vital to churches not simply as a therapeutic exercise for victims but as a condition for their renewal and reconciliation.

These reflections may also be pertinent to the wider society. Brexit and the Trump phenomenon have been characterised by a coarsening of public language. It has been displayed in brutal partisanship, the reduction of complex argument to single slogans and the refusal to take responsibility.


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