The Boston Globe | Abuse in the Catholic Church



Examining how and when to forgive

By Rich Barlow, Globe Staff, 1/4/2003

Seeking forgiveness has become the rage. Cardinal Bernard F. Law asked for it. So did US Senator Trent Lott. But forgiveness is a complex thing. Some Christians consider it a renewable resource, unlimited in supply. After all, Jesus forgave his killers and left us an aphorism about turning the other cheek. Yet Judaism and Islam, which consider justice as important as forgiveness, teach that there's no obligation to forgive when a wrongdoer hasn't repented, says Solomon Schimmel in his new book, ''Wounds Not Healed by Time'' (Oxford University Press). Simon Wiesenthal, the famous Nazi hunter, once withheld forgiveness from a dying SS officer who'd asked it from him in a wartime concentration camp, notes Schimmel, a professor at Hebrew College in Newton.

His book discusses when to forgive, and how, and what to do when you can't repent to a victim. He mixes religion, psychology - and poetry. Schimmel reprints a poignant Thomas Hardy work in which the guilt-stricken poet imagines his dead wife addressing him as he visits her grave: ''Now I am dead you come to me/In the moonlight, comfortless;/Ah, what would I have given alive/To win such tenderness!''

Q. Could you summarize some strategies for forgiving someone who has wronged us?

A. The two main ones would be empathy and humility. By empathy, I mean trying to get into the mindset of the perpetrator, not to justify what the person has done but to realize that sometimes people hurt us not out of malicious intent, but because they might have been under certain pressures or misunderstandings. Humility is the awareness that nobody's perfect, including ourselves. Oftentimes, we hurt other people, and we want to be given another chance. If [we're] totally harsh, it's a difficult world in which to live. We often aren't aware that we might have contributed in some measure to why that person had been lashing out at us.

Q. Cardinal Law has asked forgiveness. How could he repent?

A. I don't feel comfortable preaching to Catholics; I'm Jewish. Whoever does judge him has to judge him in the entirety of his contributions. He has done some wonderful things. Having said that, there are several people who have suffered the consequences of this sin of his. Obviously, the children themselves who were abused. But he also has not been that helpful to the priests who abused the children. By not holding them more accountable, he short-circuited their need for repenting and changing themselves. He's also done a disservice to Catholics. I can't say whether he's earned forgiveness, because that would depend upon knowing more about the sincerity of what he feels inside. Bernard Law still has a life ahead of him. There are many good things he can do in repair.

Q. You write of the good in even some killers. Do you approve of capital punishment?

A. I am not opposed in principle to capital punishment, but I think it has to be used sparingly. Innocent people are found guilty sometimes.

Q. You write of groups repenting for injustices they've committed against other groups in the past - slavery, anti-Semitism. Critics say this balkanizes society and encourages a sense of perpetual victimhood.

A. I never want to minimize personal responsibility. The issue is, does it make sense for a group today to ask forgiveness for sins committed by their ancestors - for example, if the Catholic Church asks forgiveness for anti-Semitism of the past, or are whites required to make reparation to blacks for slavery? I come out that where today, we are still benefitting from those injustices and still have certain attitudes - I never had a slave, but to [the] extent I harbor unconsciously racist attitudes - I have an obligation to repent, to transform myself. It doesn't mean necessarily giving every black a certain amount of money. I would favor government policies that help undo the lingering effects of past racism and slavery, that improve the quality of life for people who are still suffering.

Q. Are there times when people should not forgive?

A. I think so. Sometimes to forgive could be dangerous - abusive spouses. The same with being too lenient with priests who abuse children. Forgiving there is immoral. A colleague told me there was a church in New York, in response to 9/11, that prayed we forgive the terrorists. Why should I forgive somebody who's still trying to kill me? Where there's sincere repentance [and] you don't have concern the perpetrator will repeat the crime, one should be forgiving. This notion of ''zero tolerance'' for priests - there are cases where priests years ago did an inappropriate act, it became public, they repented, they were held accountable, they never repeated it, they've done wonderful work [since]. To defrock everyone without consideration whether they have gone through repentance is in many ways un-Christian. In Jewish tradition, you have to accept the penitent sinner.

Q. Should Trent Lott be forgiven?

A. I don't think that Trent Lott should be forgiven yet. No one knows the sincerity of his remorse. If Trent Lott would spend a few years in activities to discourage racism, then maybe yes.

This story ran on page B2 of the Boston Globe on 1/4/2003.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

For complete coverage of the priest abuse scandal, go to