By Dan Spinelli
Dan Spinelli is a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania studying English and Political Science.
Christianity is a religion of radical forgiveness. Beginning with Jesus’s prescient statement to the flock of people rushing to stone an adulteress: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her,” Christian tradition encouraged forgiveness.  Modern examples often run counter to our natural instinct for revenge and anger. This past June, in Charleston, South Carolina, Dylann Storm Roof killed nine people at a Bible study in the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.  At Roof’s arraignment hearing, survivors and their families shocked the nation with their gentle words of forgiveness.  “You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. But God forgives you and I forgive you,” said Nadine Collier, the daughter of Ethel Lance, a tragic victim of the shooting. 
Forgiveness is not only an incredibly powerful and beautiful Christian tradition, but also allows those affected by atrocities to begin to move on from their horrifying experiences. However, what happens when forgiveness preempts legal punishment or even helps a perpetrator evade punishment? What if a magistrate decided that Roof was sincerely remorseful of his actions and let him off without punishment? Despite the victims’ friends and family members’ willingness to forgive him, they would nevertheless demand justice for the immoral decision. But, to extend this metaphor, what if Roof was really, really sorry and even ritualized his remorse?
In Roman Catholicism, Confession is one of the seven sacraments, which are – as legions of Catholic schoolchildren remember – “outward signs instituted by Jesus Christ to give grace.”  Baptism is a sacrament, and one of the most unusual sacraments is Confession, in which penitents admit their sins to a priest. The priest, as the representative of God, not only forgives them for their wrongdoings, but also absolves them — effectively cleansing their soul of any residue of sin. The seriousness of this ritual shouldn’t be lost on anyone unfamiliar with it: for all intents and purposes, the individuals who confess their sins in Confession no longer have reason to feel guilty anymore.
Clergy sexual abuse, however, is a more multifaceted issue without any clear reason, answer, or resolution. A combination of institutional and personal failures compounded the horrific actions of numerous priests. However, a topic that seems rarely addressed is whether radical forgiveness, exemplified through the sacrament of Confession, may have contributed to the practice of allowing committed pedophiles to continue to be priests. Imagine that a priest admits in Confession to sexually abusing a child. He expresses his sorrow, does his Penance, and is therefore forgiven. The priest who absolved his sins is barred from telling anyone what he has heard, even if other children may be at risk. Some states, including New Hampshire and West Virginia, mandate that priests report sexual abuse confessed in the Sacrament of Penance.  Other states, however, exempt priests from divulging confessed information, regardless of its content. It is not unique or strange for a priest to hear stories of sexual abuse in the confessional, file it away, forgive it, and not tell a single soul. When we ask why priests with a track record of abuse are funneled from parish to parish, as has happened in Boston, Philadelphia, and various other cities, should we also stop decrying the incompetence of their supervisors and start asking why forgiveness supersedes safety?
Certainly not all sex crimes are confessed or discovered during Confession. Overseers who discover abuse by their underlings outside of the sacrament have no valid excuse, religious or otherwise, to cover it up. However, for discoveries made in Confession, or forgiven later in the sacrament, priests are left in a conundrum. While priests who urge the penitent to admit to his crimes in a legal arena may be considered unfaithful to the sacrament’s healing power to absolve sins, a priest who takes no course of action upon hearing cases of clergy sexual abuse may be considered immoral. Is this forgiveness, made by God to the penitent not by the victim, really forgiveness?
Perhaps Jesus can again provide our answer. As the Gospels elucidate, Jesus made waves among the Orthodox Jews of his day by venturing to forgive sins himself – including the woman about to be stoned – setting the example for priests to forgive sins through Confession. Outside of a religious context, does it really make sense for third parties to offer “forgiveness” without the victim’s consent or awareness? Is it dangerous for a bishop to believe a priest is cured of his pedophilia because he has confessed his sin?
The forgiveness of mass murder by the faithful in Charleston was a beautiful demonstration. These family members and loved ones had the right to forgive – it was their spouses, brothers, sisters, and children who were killed. But in establishing a culture of forgiveness, have Christians allowed themselves to leave unspeakable crimes to the confessional rather than the courtroom? Shouldn’t there be room for both God’s forgiveness and man’s justice?
 Jn. 8:7 NIV.
 “Nine Killed in South Carolina Church Shooting,” accessed October 17, 2015, http://www.cbsnews.com/pictures/charleston-south-carolina-church-shooting/.
 Remnick, David. "Blood at the Root." The New Yorker. Conde Nast, 28 Sept. 2015. Web. 09 Oct. 2015.
 “Catholic Sacraments: A Primer,” accessed October 17, 2015, http://www.beginningcatholic.com/sacraments.html.
 Clergy as Mandatory Reporters of Child Abuse and Neglect." Child Welfare Information Gateway. Children's Bureau, 2013. Web.
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