When I was little, a girl in our town was murdered. It quickly came out that the murderer was a local man, someone everyone knew and lived with. That made things even more horrifying: Not only had the town lost a child, they discovered that the evildoer was one of them.
Once the initial shock wore off, some of the Christians in the community started to talk about forgiveness. They decided together that they would do the right thing and forgive the murderer for what he had done.
My parents, who were fairly new converts, were scandalized. I was amazed at their outrage, because I had the vague idea that it was Christian to forgive. I remember my mother telling me with vehemence, “They don’t get to forgive him.”
Why? Because that was the job of the dead girl’s parents, when they were ready. They were the ones who had been wounded — they and the girl herself, of course. The rest of the community had been injured as well, with the loss of the girl, and because it’s frightening and upsetting to have a murder happen close to home. They could forgive him for that, and they could decide how they were going to behave toward him and his family.
But they could not forgive the murder itself; and their dramatic, public decision to forgive him was a grave insult to the grieving parents. “I forgive him for what he did to you!” It have felt like a second attack. How dare they?
A similar thing happened when Fr. Maciel’s monstrous crimes were uncovered. The Church in the United States suffered intensely, and still suffers; but at least in my corner of the country, there was a lot of scandalous scrambling to forgive abuse by parties who hadn’t been abused. They may or may not have been trying to imitate Christ by extending forgiveness, but it was a misplaced effort. Only Christ, and his priests acting with the power given to them by Christ, can forgive sins; and only the wounded party may forgive the aggressor personally. We can forgive the aspects that affect us, but we cannot disburse the debt of forgiveness owed to someone else.
My friend Sheila Connolly, who did suffer abuse at the hands of the Legion of Christ, told me:
It does really hurt when someone forgives your abuser FOR you, and then gets mad at you because you aren’t as forgiving as they are. ‘Why are you so bitter? *I* forgave him for abusing you, why can’t you?’ Millions of people who had never been harmed by him in the least were SO proud of how they were able to forgive him. Those of us whose lives had been destroyed by him? Our feelings didn’t matter.
Let’s be clear: We are told not to judge each other. We are called to love each other, including abusers, including murderers, including rapists, including people who hate and scheme against the Church, including people who cover up the crimes of others, including people who commit crimes, including people who defraud others, including people who bring shame to causes dear to us. We are commanded to love them.
But no matter how much we love someone, that does not mean that they are excused from facing the consequences of their behavior, which may include prudent mistrust; and they are not excused from their debt to the party they have actually sinned against.
My sister Abby Tardiff explained it this way:
We are obligated to love. We are obligated to wish everyone well. We are obligated not to be bitter. That’s all true, but the definition of “forgiveness” is more specific than that–it means releasing someone of a debt they incur by harming you. Check out the Lord’s Prayer: “as we forgive those who trespass against US.” I should be loving and kind to people who owe other people large amounts of money, too, but I can’t forgive their debts. My inability to forgive debts owed to other people is due not to a moral flaw, but to a logical impossibility.
Got that? It’s not laudable to forgive someone who has assaulted someone else. It’s not even foolish or sentimental to forgive someone who has assaulted someone else. It’s impossible to forgive someone who has assaulted someone else.
When we Christians publicly pat ourselves on the backs for how forgiving we are willing to be, it tells the actual wounded party: “You have no claim. The harm that was done you has been repaid. All done; move along.”
Easy for us to say. Easy, because it doesn’t mean anything.