Busted Halo

Paulist seminarian Tom Gibbons reflects on his formation experience and his life as a seminarian right now. Along the way, some questions will be will be answered, and a lot more will come up.

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March 30th, 2010

The Abuse Scandal, Peter’s Denial, and Pointing at the Moon


This homily was given on the Tuesday of Holy Week based on the Gospel reading for the day: Peter’s Denial of Jesus. The text can be read here.

A few days ago, I was talking on the phone with somebody who had told me once that a Catholic priest had abused him when he was a child.  He had just begun to get some peace about it, but all of the new allegations over the past few weeks in Ireland and Germany really kicked up these feelings again… because for him it wasn’t just the abuse, it was the cover up that happened at a larger level.  All of his anger and frustration at the Church came roaring back.  And as he spoke I was reminded of today’s Gospel reading.

Betrayal_PeterPeter’s denial of Jesus is a story that is contained in all four Gospels; scholars estimate that the Gospels were written sometime between 30 to 60 years after the death of Jesus.  But what is fascinating is that none of the gospels cover up this humongous failure of one of their leaders.  In fact, this flaw is brought to the forefront of the Gospels for all of the world to see.  That the human stone on which the church rests is simply that… human.

A Buddhist reflection offers that, “all instruction is but a finger pointing to the moon; and those whose gaze is fixed upon the pointer will never see beyond. Even let him catch sight of the moon, and still he cannot see its beauty.”  The same can be said for our Church – because it can be so big and so wonderful, it can be easy to mistake the finger for the moon, which of course we understand as the Son, Christ.  But this is why when a wart is discovered on the finger, often the reaction is to try to cover it up, to deny it… because it’s presence is too threatening for those only looking at the finger.  This dynamic is one of the reasons why the Early Christians included all of their own flaws, to make sure that our attention would be focused on Christ and not on themselves.

finger-moon-hoteiAs we have been reading in the newspapers this week, it turns out that the finger of our church does have a couple of warts; consequentially there have been a lot of attacks in the press.  Some of the attacks have come from people who are genuinely looking for the truth; others come from those who have had a long standing grudge against the Catholic Church and this recent scandal is just ammunition to fuel their own biases and prejudices.  But whatever the motivation, it does not take away from the fact that our Church has major flaws to contend with right now.

Consequently, we will need the grace of Christ that our church points to so that the healing can begin… for those directly hurt by the abuse crisis like my friend, for those of us who feel betrayed, as well as for those who have played a direct part in this scandal, whomever they may be.  The process of healing will likely be difficult.  As Peter found out in today’s gospel, facing the truth usually is.  Many will want to run away from it.  Many will want to deny it.

So as our Lenten journey enters its final days, we turn our eyes to Christ.  We ask for God’s extra protection for those who have been hurt and those who feel betrayed by this scandal.  We ask Christ to shine his light even more brightly on our wounded finger so that we better know how to repair it.  And we ask for the courage to face the truth of our flaws—both as individuals and as a church—so that we can all fully receive the grace of God’s healing.

The Author : Fr. Tom Gibbons
Since 2009, Tom Gibbons, CSP, has shared insights on faith, pop culture, and seminary life in the Kicking and Screaming blog here at Busted Halo. On May 19, 2012, Tom was ordained a Paulist priest at St. Paul the Apostle Church in New York City. He will begin serving St. Peter's Catholic Church in Toronto, Canada beginning in July 2012.
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  • Shannon

    Thanks for opening a discussion on a topic that has been under a bushel for so long. While strong reactions will come your way, Tom, the pain that is being released had to go somewhere, and the “betrayal” is a part of that-the lack of a place for pain to be set free. Thanks for making a home for the voices of others who need to speak, even if it not what you’d like to hear. This blog has a purpose and a mission.
    I did understand the “wart” expression in the way you used it, because I have heard your preaching in person and can tell where you would emphasize and what doesn’t translate as well to pixels and kerns.
    I am also a little blown away by the fact that Fr. Tom can say, “We ask for God‚Äôs extra protection for those who have been hurt and those who feel betrayed by this scandal,” and that The Church has major flaw or faults. There were no blogs, even 8 years ago, and the culture of silence, well, would not have permitted that kind of communication when we were children.
    My heart goes out to those who see their own children’s faces (or theirs) in the reports. Thank you for going public with your stories as well. Even if I don’t agree with how each line in this homily is interpreted, or some language/style used by posters (children who are ‘smart’ are also abused, for example-I know and love some, but I know that is not how it was intended to be read), the message is that silence is not the answer. Luke, I see what you mean about power. That is the infuriating part of abuse on a child in any setting-the betrayal of trust and innocence in order to feel strong, is a different kind of violence altogether.

  • Lisa Burke

    The passage of the gospel that keeps coming to my mind on this issue is Jesus driving the moneychangers out of the temple. He showed genuine ANGER over sinful behavior by physically turning over tables. “Not in My Father’s house” was the message. We have none of that here. The church hierarchy, in my mind has shown no outrage, no anger over the use of the Church for sinful purposes. The concern is more for the reputation of its leaders. Each day that I hear the Church leaders’ continued lukewarm response to the latest scandals that come to light, I become more disheartened in the earthly leadership of the Church. If they don’t start ‘turning over the tables’ in anger over what has/is happening in the Father’s house as Jesus did, they will continue to give adult Catholics like me one more reason to leave the Church.

  • Luke

    I tend to agree with Harry and Dennis. What the priests did was wrong, no arguing about that. However, the bigger sin is the bishops who covered up the sin and let it continue to go on. Here’s the thing, if I am a teacher and student A is picking on student B in my classroom, being abuse or bullying, maybe even doing some physical har, I am responsible for it. I can not say I didn’t know about it. I am the person in charge. I am the authority figure and in the end, the buck stops with me. I feel like the bishops have thown the priests under the bus and not taken full responsibility for allowing the sexual abuse to cintinue when they could have stopped it. The church needs to come clean and take responsibility for her actions. It is not good enough for the Pope or any bishop to say they were unaware of what was going on. How can the church have any crediblity? instead of coming clean, I feel like those in authority in the church are trying to hold onto their power as long as they can. The hiarchery of our church has made mistakes. It’s too bad they are not willing to admit them. Because of this the whole church has to suffer. As to John’s cmomment, “Oddly this little man has been more outspoken than
    most to purge the sin of homosexuality (parent to pedophilia) from his Church,” obviously you don’t know what pedophilia is all about. Pedophilia has less to do with sexuality and more to do with power and control, sound familiar?. I would suggest do you do some research before you draw that conclusion from the conserative media. I can assure you some of the best priests and bishops, yes I said bishops, who are doing great things for the church are homosexual. I suspect a priest that has ministered to you was gay and you didn’t even know about it. Most gay priests I know are very conforable being priests, live out their promise to be celebate, and have no intention of making their sexuality known. They are happy being a priest and do their job very well. It is funny how their sexuality is not an issue when they are ministering to people. It only becomes an issue when people try to label them that way.

  • Harry

    Yikes! I thought this might lead somewhere but makes me feel like we go back to the usual circular reasoning found so often in the church. The leadership needs to come clean and admit their mistake of covering up abuse and protecting abusive priest – whether involved directly or indirectly. It is a simple process – just come clean. The silence position of the leadership and the combative tone of the Vatican communication minions’ underscores that the church administration collectively needs to figure out “denial” is not just a river in Egypt.

  • ann

    Comparing child abuse to warts is only slightly more respectful to the victims’ plight than the really hurtful accusation of “petty gossip”. Rome’s overall handling of the abuse accusations has been a major policy and PR fumble. Rather than expressing sympathy for victims or promise for justice, the tone has been one of extreme defensiveness and stinging retorts.

    The world understands that child abuse exists in most cultures, institutions, etc and it is not a problem unique to Priests.

    If the Church is maintain an authentic moral authority, she must also be relentless in the purge of individuals from the cloth who commit CRIMES, not sins.

    I trust that Christ will see his Church through this dark time. And I hope that individuals within Church authority see the error in handling things of this nature internally and covertly.

  • Didier Bertrand

    As rhetorically impeccable as it sounds, this is a very circular, and ultimately, disappointing argument. I have but a passing acquaintance with child abuse, involving my son, (NOT with a Catholic priest, let me hasten to say, nor did it get very far, because the kid is smart,) but calling the issue “a couple of warts on the hand of the Church,” or saying that this brings ammunition to Its detractors is simply dismissive and I doubt it will appease parents of wronged children. They do not live child abuse on an anatomical or political level–they are angry at themselves for entrusting their child to a priest (for me, a 30-minute lesson with a private music teacher), and at the priest (when it is the case) whom they trusted, despite evidence that priests should not be trusted. I assure you, they must be beating themselves up daily for it.

    It’s not a couple of warts we should talk about here, but rather, we should question the hand that is pointing to the moon, and make sure that, if warts there are, we employ the right medical treatment to eradicate them. This may sound like I am squeezing everything I can out of the wart metaphor, and I am… Wouldn’t it be nice if we could medicate child abuse? apply an ointment on it and call it quits? But squeezing all you can out of a metaphor is precisely what you do… you use metaphors to undermine the seriousness of the offense. Talking about child abuse as a wart (even two) is so incredibly callous! It’s a cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, alzheimer’s disease, that you should be comparing child abuse by priests to. A WART??? Please… I fear that, as long as people like you dismiss the issues that way, crimes against children by priests will keep going practically unpunished.

    I hear some of the people above who mention the dedication of priests at all hours of the day and night, and I do not mean to undermine their achievements. But the priesthood is not a job, it is a calling, and if you don’t like your schedule, well… the calling is probably not yours. Human, we all are, like Peter, the cornerstone of the Church, but the Service of God is an absolute service, and betraying it that way is simply despicable and should not be tolerated–let alone covered up–by any Divine institution. It sure gives Christ’s words in Matthew 18:5: “And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me” a very bitter taste.

  • John Leary

    The latest scourge of Pope appears in an AP news article at

    The last time this “cry-for-justice” was so loud in my ears was in Los Angeles in the early 80’s, when the “Bucky-McMasters” case was taken up by the media.

    I doubt there was a single reporter in the first several years who wrote about the amazing lack of hard evidence that an un-presentable, not-too-smart man and his baggy-dressed mother had conspired to abuse very young children at a South Bay school. The children’s allegations, some later shown to have been “recovered by hypnotism” of tots less than four, may even have included scenes tantamount to beastiality. What a horror — it turns out many years later — for Bucky and McMasters, who WERE NOT
    convicted, but of course had been MIND RAPED by the press.

    It is important to remember this kind of HORROR, and even the more subtle but more
    viral-like infections of the mind that were portrayed in the play and the movie “Doubt”. Whenever reputation is allowed to be “at risk”, no one is “innocent until proven guilty.” Reporters, hell-bent on uncovering “evil” become nigh-on to the “interrogators” of the Inquisition, about whom much has been written.

    One of the comments to the Yahoo posting of the AP article put the abomination of Hiroshima in the hands of only a few Americans. One of those few was a little man who became President, unknowing of the choices he would be called upon to make. When he was advised that an Atomic strike would save lives of millions of soldiers, he chose the abomination of unleashing the bomb. Was he a devil? Hardly. He was a man who did his job. So too is this little Pope, now excoriated by the media for what … compliance, compassion, complicity, confusion, coddling, etc … in events well more than three decades old. Oddly this little man has been more outspoken than
    most to purge the sin of homosexuality (parent to pedophilia) from his Church. But not to purge the homosexuals, just to purge the sin. Our brave, clear thinking, brutally honest little President purged our world of war with a decision that cost many thousands of human lives in an instant. It would seem that our brave, clear thinking, brutally honest, and HOLY little Pope, has been purging his Church of SIN, with similarly costly decisions.

  • Virginia Butler

    Children were raped by priests. People knew about it and did nothing to stop it. Father, forgive us. And protect our children.

  • jedesto

    I agree with A. Catherine’s and coastalcathy’s attitude. This scandal is comparable to Peter’s denials of Jesus before the cock crowed. Sadly, the faithful, clerical and lay, high and low, cradle-Catholics and converts, will feel its effects for generastions.

  • Dennis Doyle

    There is a disconnect in my mind looking at the issue – no matter how you analyze Christ’s place (moon or finger etc) the Bishop’s apparently worldwide have valued ordained clergy above our children. As a parent talking to men who supposedly never have had children – never awoke in the middle of the night to tend to a sick child etc. I see this failure on the part of Bishops as monumental – unacknowledged – worldwide – so the culture of seminarian selection/training/etc must have a weakness we are incapable of correcting or unwilling to correct. I’ve always thought the problem was with the “higher ups” not with the sinners.

  • coastalkathy

    As a convert who made the decision to become Catholic after 15 years of prayer I am finding it difficult to still see the focus of the church on the protection of the cleargy rather than the innocent kids whose lives have been damaged ,many beyond repair.I heard on NPR yesterday that many ,many priests have been quietly reinstated after being repremanded for sexual abuse. WRONG.

  • Richard G Evans

    A Catherine–whether they are warts or cancer, they still in both cases need to be cut away, exposed and then healed. I think that is the point and I don’t believe the lesson here is that either are soft or light–but both are removable by God and His ultimate grace. Yes, He does forgive both our venial and mortal sins; our little moments where we slip and our crimes against others. All are within His ability to cleanse and start us anew. To me that is the true point here.

  • A. Catherine

    Sexual abuse and its systematic denial are “warts”? That seems a bit soft.

  • Drew Cloutier

    Tom (who I do not know but of whom my sister speaks highly), it is nice to see a (future) priest acknowledging some of the problem. However, your wart metaphor is very apt in that my faith is so much more and also captures the point in a way that you do not acknowledge.

    If this scandal is a wart or two on a finger, then the magisterium is the finger. I don’t think that, in St. Paul’s analogy of the Church as a body, the magisterium holds itself out as a finger or asks the People of God to so view them.

    However, I think that these scandals do tend to have the Church view the magisterium as more like a finger rather than the head.

  • Rebecca

    Thank you for this post Tom. Like your friend, I too have struggled with the magnitude of the cover up. I have never had as much trouble with forgiveness as I have had since this scandal originally broke. I’m doing the best I can to keep the moon in my sights.

  • Emily

    Wonderful, Tom. I love watching God work in you and through you.

  • Mary Ruff

    What a great response to the latest bad news. So many people have let these scandals tear apart the fabric of their faith. They cannot see that the church is made up of human beings, and as human beings, we all have flaws and failings. These abuses have left deep, deep scars – on the victims to be sure, but also on the larger community. I pray that our generation can weather this storm and that a stronger church emerges for the next generation. It’s so sad to hear people blast the entire community for the terrible failings of a few. I wish the same critics could be at the hospital or at the home in a time of crisis when the loyal parish priest shows up – at any hour of the night to provide much needed support and guidance to the couple that has just lost a child, to the husband who has just lost his wife or the family that has just lost their father. Where is the praise and outpouring of support for the clergy then? It is non exisitent and it is a terrible shame.

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