Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Schadenfreude! Literally, damage-joy, in German. Pleasure derived by someone in another person’s misfortune. That’s the best way I can sum up the attitude of the Pharisees and Scribes in the account of the woman caught in the act of adultery, in last Sunday’s Gospel (Jn 7:40-53). Their malice lies deeper, I would suspect, than the mere “outing” of a person whose reputation and circumstances we know little about. In order to catch her in the act, one strongly suspects, these vigilantes must have plotted, staked her out and waited till the right moment to capture her — no mention of the infidelity of the partner.

As the narrative continues, we learn that, at heart, they are engaged in a form of scapegoating, deflecting attention from their own sick souls’ corruption, projecting their even graver sin on the observed behavior of another. For the Scriptures reveal they seized her merely to use her in order to test the response of Jesus, abusing her once again in a way that exposes their own form of adultery or infidelity to their role as religious leaders. They “cover up” their own malevolent designs, intent on bringing Jesus down. Who, in the end, has the greater sin?

No one knows what Jesus was writing in the sand. Church fathers have speculated that it was the sins of the accusers. They seek to enhance their own authority and control by deflecting from their corruption, putting on the face of righteousness, pretending to obey the Mosaic law while neglecting its true intent. They are like many a religious zealot who focus on the formal and ritualistic components of a religion, ignoring its substance and vigor by trivializing it. Jesus, of course, will have none of it and calls their bluff: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

I remember one of my high school profs noting that when I point my index finger at another in criticism or contempt, the other three fingers point right back at me! Often ridiculing the faults of others — whether through gossip, judgment or innuendo — is a cover-up for one’s own sins and failings that one would rather not acknowledge or deal with. We have certainly had our share of scandals and cover-ups served us in revelations of institutional failures in business, political and even ecclesiastical realms, and the schadenfreude is rampant.

To be sure, evil and corruption must be acknowledged and exposed where they exist. Wounds cannot heal unless they are first identified and any scab that forms over a very deep wound, be it physical, psychological or moral, will only allow the infection to grow insidiously below the surface, if the infection is not rooted out. This is as true of institutions, corporations and professional circles as it is of families, nuclear or extended. It has been said that a family is as sick as its secrets.

We do not protect the integrity or wellness of anyone or any society by denying sin and evil where it exists. Sin hurts and destroys lives, whether it is ever recognized as a crime or is amenable to prosecution. A sad consequence of ignorance, denial and cover-up of crimes such as the sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable persons in important institutions like the Church, has been not only the awful scarring wounds inflicted on the minds and souls of victims, but the loss of trust in the Church as a home, a safe space.

Any family where abuse exists and is covered up is no more secure in its foundations than a crack house. Yet, to be true to its mission as a place where salvation happens, the Church must be, first and foremost, a safe space, where our weakest and most vulnerable can find peace and the assurance that they will be protected, nourished and healed. None of this can be assured if, like the Scribes and Pharisees in the Gospel, our prime focus is only on saving face and keeping up appearances. Such whitewashing and window dressing are as phony as social media posts which tell stories in their postings like fishermen describing the one that got away.

Sin and corruption must be acknowledged and confessed, both by individuals and institutions. Fortunately, we have the Sacrament of Penance for anyone who wishes to receive the cleansing assurance of God’s merciful forgiveness. I wonder how many know how safe sacramental confession is. No priest can under any circumstance reveal the contents of a confession under pain of excommunication. It is really communication between penitent and God, to which the priest is privy and, therefore, bound to total and permanent confidentiality.

Families ideally should be safe spaces, but we know that 85 percent of abuse occurs not in institutional settings but among family members themselves. Victims typically suffer in silence, living in fear, fraught by embarrassment or the threat of retaliation or even the possibility of physical harm and destruction. Fortunately, awareness is growing of ways in which victims of violence and abuse can report their experience and receive the care and support they need.

Father Patrick Peyton often said, “the family that prays together stays together,” encouraging especially the regular recitation of the Rosary at home. This wise advice is more than some reversion to mere ritual formulas. The Rosary is intimately Christ-centered, as Mary, whom it honors, herself is, leading all of us toward her Son, Jesus, our true safe space.

Whom we are with is often more important than where we are or what we are doing. People truly in love understand this as they live and grow together through the most abject trials and circumstances, finding in their mere presence to one another, the strength to live in joy and hope. Jesus himself promised that where two or three are gathered in his name, he would be there in their midst (Mt. 18:20). He is the one person, both human and divine as he is, who will never let us down.

I am graced to know and have the friendship of survivors of the most horrific forms of abuse, who have struggled valiantly through years of anger, betrayed trust and disappointment with our Church for what they suffered not only from their abuser(s), but the pitiably inadequate levels of response. Some have found that the path to recovery is the decision never again to allow any person or institution to stand between them and the Lord who loves them. This can hardly be done without extraordinary courage, patience and often a capacity to forgive that is beyond mere human powers. But they know they have Jesus, who is their safe space. All of us can learn from such faith and hope, as we seek to accompany those wounded by the sins of their fathers and others. In the Holy Week ahead, may all of us find safety in the Cross, our true hope and in the arms of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, our true home.