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A pain that we must hold — sex abuse and racism in the Church

How do we face the continual shocking news of abuse, racism, misogyny and a society that seems at times to be unaware of how profoundly problematic these issues are? Why aren't we all furious? In the face of more stories emerging, Ricardo da Silva SJ asks some hard questions – many that have no answer other than to feel pain and anger. 

More than one thousand children over a period of seventy years were victims of sexual abuse perpetrated by criminal-priests across six dioceses in Pennsylvania, USA. This was the stultifying revelation of a grand jury report released earlier this week.

How can we live with this? “How do we continue in the Church?” “I wonder why I remain a Catholic?” These are just some of the responses that I have heard around me this week that I have spoken to myself and shared with trusted friends. They echo gustily within me and I can’t seem to shake the building disruption, discomfort, pain, confusion and rage that these thoughts produce in me.

I thought to myself, wait a minute, there’s also so much good done in and by the Church. The dearest friends I have and the most noble, even holy, people that I know are in the Church. Lay faithful and ordained ministers that have dedicated their lives in loving service to the Church and in working for justice in the face of these and other heinous evils.

When this horrifying news broke, I also happened to be at a conference looking at issues of racial (in)justice and religion in the context of South Africa and USA. There I heard, with an identical numbing, of the tragic racial injustices that have been, are, and that will inevitably continue to take place in our world.

And I felt the great shame of being white. Even if I count black people amongst some of my most treasured friends and know that there have been outstanding white persons who have fought tirelessly against racism.

I realised that there is a great gulf of lived experience that exists between black and white people from which I could not escape or even try to justify from my white-clad ivory tower. Irrespective of how many good whites there are in the world, or of how good a white I consider myself to be, it is a system that is so insidiously entrenched in our world.

These two overwhelmingly shameful and harrowing events are the cause of the pain that I feel.

My customary modus operandi, at this point, would be to say something more, to leave on a hopeful note, or to introduce a Hollywood ending to make it all better – to say, “It’s all going to be fine.”

But, I can’t dismiss the pain that I feel, and, much as I’m sure we’d all like to do, I can’t turn the page and ignore the countless people affected by sexual abuse and systemic racism.

It may be that that is the problem. We can’t bear pain. We always want to move on to the next thing, to find the silver lining, a quick-fix. But, what if we just spent time feeling the pain and knowing the hurt that we cause so many, directly and in situations that are continually perpetuated in our name – even if we don’t will, choose or condone them?

I am uncomfortable to end here, without resolving or leaving on a high; but I must experience the pain – mine and theirs – and hold it, because it will not and it must not go away.

Images: Unsplash

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.



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Ricardo da Silva SJ
Ricardo is a member of the South African region of the Jesuits and an ordained deacon of the Roman Catholic Church. In 2020, he received a master's degree in journalism from the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, New York, where he was an African Pulitzer Fellow and reported on religion, mental health, housing and other social injustices. Before moving to the U.S.A., Ricardo served as acting editor of and was on the team at Jesuit Institute South Africa. His preparation for ministry as a Jesuit has taken him to study theology in Brazil, philosophy in the U.K and brief working stints in Zimbabwe and Spain. As a Jesuit, he has ministered to refugees, migrants, people experiencing street homelessness, young adults, seminarians, the elderly, and high school and university students, staff and faculty. Before entering religious life in 2007, Ricardo worked in marketing, communications, and brand management before joining the Jesuits in 2007. Ricardo holds dual citizenship, having emigrated from Portugal to South Africa at the age of six with his mother.

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