Neither Forgive Nor Forget: Sexual Predation and Christian Response

Neither Forgive Nor Forget: Sexual Predation and Christian Response August 17, 2018

CONTENT WARNING.  My uncle is a rapist.  An incestuous rapist, if we want to be precise, and we do.  An incestuous rapist who has dabbled in bestiality, if we want to get right down to it.  And we are.

An incestuous, bestial rapist, known by his victims, by his children, by his family, by his wife, by his mother, by his dog, possibly by his neighbors as such – a known sexual predator…

…Who is not in jail.

He is charming.  He has charisma.  He is elegant.  He throws dinner parties and improvises jazz on the piano.  He is a successful architect.  He built his own house.  He went to Notre Dame.  He’s a silver fox.  Eloquent, well-spoken, capable of holding forth on numerous topics (whether he is correct or not being unimportant to his charm).  He is vain, his eyes twinkle, he’s coercive, he raped his sisters.  He raped his sisters in the daylight.

And he is not in jail.

I asked one of his victims why.  Why we, who all are his nephews and nieces, knew him at all.  Why we – why I – had been exposed to him (the question of whether he molested any of us – me – as an infant, in a moment no one saw, haunting the back of my mind).  Why, in fact, he had been introduced to us as “the good uncle.”  The uncle worth going to Christmas dinner with.  The sanest uncle.  The uncle we were supposed to love.

I was told: because it was believed that a man could be forgiven and would change.

It was better to forgive and to forget.

I only learned of what my body somehow knew and did not know in 2002, when the pedophilia scandals came to light in Boston.  The news that came out almost daily, whose headlines made me want to vomit in a way that was far too visceral for someone who was supposed to be untouched by the world; which headlines shocked enough people at that time, I think, that the truth came out one night on the couch in the middle of a TV commercial.

What he had done.  To whom.  And done as well to the dog.

I didn’t ask for details.  I had already nearly fainted once when reading Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and that description of her casual rape by her step-father in the middle of the day.  Years later, in grad school, I would find my body simply standing up and walking me out of a classroom where we were discussing a children’s play that dealt too sweetly with incest.  I’d call them both panic attacks now.  I didn’t have the language then.  So my body tried to simply…take me away.

Because the Body does not forget.  And the Body cannot forgive.

We are taught by our faith that it’s the pinnacle of Christian charity, of Christian one-ness with the suffering Christ, to forgive and forget those who’ve done grave wrong.  To turn the other cheek and give innumerable chances to those who abuse us.  To be doormats.

We take Christ’s words, pleading for us: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” to extend as well to those who know precisely what they’re doing – and use our forgetfulness to do it again.

We focus on Christ, who knew the minds and hearts of each individual He interceded for, and we forget that he refused to answer the Pharisees, the Saducees, even Herod!  Who was King.  He gave no answer to His own priests, who deserved none.  He gave no answer to earthly kings.  Who had no faith in Him, besides a bauble for their amusement.

We forget the priests and politicians, those whom he condemned and did not say: “Father, forgive them,” but “Woe for you.”

We focus on the woman caught in adultery, arguing interminably over whether she was Mary Magdalene, and pointing out that Christ forgave her.  Forgetting the other part of that story: that Christ had the wicked men who dragged that victim before Him point the sinful finger at themselves.  That  they departed, of their own will, from Him – and He let them go: without forgiveness.  With barely a Word.  And that story was written down.  We have not forgotten it, although we’ve forgotten that while He said to the Woman, “Then neither will I condemn you,” he did not utter that Word to the holy men who used her.  Them, He left condemned.  The story remains.  It is only we who have forgotten.

We forget the Christ who said:

Better a millstone be tied around his neck and a man be thrown into the sea than he abuse one of My Little Ones.

In the case of Little Ones, Christ does not forgive, does not turn the cheek, does not offer seventy-times seven. He says to the Little Ones, “Let them come to me.”  He gives the Little Ones justice, as He sings time and time again in the Beatitudes.  While he says to the nameless rich man who let His Little Ones perish: You have made your hell yourself.  Stay in it.

Better to remember.  Better to speak out.

If we can still believe in anything as our priesthood is exposed time and again as whitewashed tombs (la plus ça change); if we can still believe in a Loving God who does not abuse; if we can still be Christians – those messengers of Mercy – then it’s important that we place Mercy where it belongs: with the victims.  Which means, appropriately, to place Justice where it, too, belongs: with the abusers.

Unlike Victor Hugo’s vision of Justice vs. Mercy in Les Misérables, Justice and Mercy are actually the same thing.  It is merciful to enact justice, to remove and punish and not allow back into society those who have abused.  This is mercy: mercy for their victims – past and future; and mercy, too, for the perpetrator who is forced on earth to confront himself.

It is justice to give reparation to the victims, to let them see the physical, incontrovertible truth that they are believed, valued, and made safe.  It is just and it is merciful.  For victims to become survivors, they must have justice.  And if they are not given justice here on earth, be sure it will be meted out hereafter.

But we have been merciful to the murderers – for that’s what every abuser is, at heart: a murderer.  A stealer of innocence.  Even before we can remember.  Even before we can forget.

We have been merciful to the murderers, to our priests, saying that they are the “good uncle,” the only one worth knowing, worth having over for Christmas dinner, worth acting like pimps for, worth forgiving seventy-times-seven times, worth turning the other cheek, worth offering up our children like a feast for the eating, because we ourselves were eaten.

After all: they are the golden ones worthy of mercy; and we, as Christians, must “forgive and forget.”

And they’re counting on that.

Abusers are unrepentant.

This idea of “forgive and forget” is so ingrained – at least in me – as a Christian, that I fell into its trap once, too.  At least once.  Probably a dozen times.  Probably I shall fall into it again.

Because to “forgive and forget” is to maintain the status quo.  But the status quo is fallen.  And it requires a lever as big as a crucifix to get this old toppled world back on its axis again.

The crucifix may forgive, but it does not forget.  Every year, twice a year, we are tortured by listening to the story of our fall, of His forgiveness.  We stand, yawning, on our feet as we drone out the Passion in the most listless fashion.  It is we who forget, even as we are being told to Remember.  It is we who barely listen as the priest – worthy or not; in fact, being human, unworthy – recites the effective Word of Christ: His Command, “Do this, in remembrance of Me.”  Not “Forget me,” no.  “REMEMBER ME.”

The Word of every victim:


Compared with the corrupted word, whispered in the dark, from every approved abuser:

“This did not happen.  FORGET.”

More than a decade ago, I was confronted as an adult with one of my students abusing the other.  Thinking back, I had known of other abuses of other students at my school, but second or third hand.  And I had been told to forget them, ignore them; forgive the abuser, presume the victim guilty.  And, not being particularly close to the case, and being human – I had.

But this case could not be ignored.  One person in the circle called me up to be the arbiter of justice.  Others came forward, confirmed the story.  The people involved did not deny, although the victim did not understand what everyone else did: that it was not love but abuse they had suffered.

Being unprepared for such an eventuality, and thinking that the abuser surely was a person of morals – having been one of my students and much beloved – (despite the fact that the innumerable acts denied this very contradiction about the abuser; they were not a person of morals, they were a person who knew how to play with those who had them), I gave the abuser the opportunity to come clean.

They did not.

And so I took what measures I deemed appropriate, and came clean for them.

I have tortured myself for years – even as I am torturing myself while writing this article – for daring, even obliquely, even without pronouns or proper names – for daring to break the silence of abuse.  For daring to betray an abuser’s trust.  Let me write that again:

Right now, I feel guilty for betraying an abuser’s trust.

But that’s the thing about abusers: they’re the ones in power.  They’re the ones who trade on the fact that they can look, at any given moment, like victims.  They trade on the fact that they have groomed us, whom they are also abusing, to think well of them.

As my Uncle groomed us all – his family, his mother, his sisters, his children, his neighbors, his dog – to think him incapable of any ill.  As my student who was an abuser went out of their way, strangely, manipulatively one night, to tell me that they were not an abuser, that they wanted to teach morality, that they wanted me to help them get back in the good graces of the other student they were abusing…so they could abuse their victim again.

Both Uncle and my student called it: “Play.  Fun.”  They abused words.  They twisted words.  They silenced their victims with words.  And they hoped, if we would not forget, that at least we wouldn’t speak.

How do we stop it?

We name it.  We scream it.  We take the appropriate actions.  We support those struggling to regrow their tongues after they’ve been chopped away.  We do not forgive.  We do not forget.

We might, however, get out some millstones.  And inscribe on them, before we hang them from abuser’s necks, just one word:


Before we drown them in the sea.

Image courtesy of Pixabay.

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  • Dave Armstrong

    Great and insightful article. Sharing on Facebook.

  • “It is merciful to enact justice, to remove and punish and not allow back into society those who have abused. This is mercy: mercy for their victims – past and future; and mercy, too, for the perpetrator who is forced on earth to confront himself.”

  • flowwalker

    VERY interesting! I’m not sure I agree with every single point here, but you present a great deal of food for thought! In the past, there have been periods when accusation and extreme punishment (burning someone at the stake for interpreting Christianity differently than one’s self, for example) were emphasized, and I’m sure we don’t want to return to THAT — but among other things, you make a very good point about not letting the perpetrator of rape get away without ACKNOWLEDGING the truth to himself. Surely one of the most infuriating things about some sexual predators is the way they are TOTALLY UNTOUCHED by the harm they inflict — adding harm by smugly laughing or scoffing at the victim.

    Also, I’m not sure if you’re speaking of rape or something less invasive in the situation you confronted as a teacher. To me, not all sexual molestation is the same — rape is in a class by itself, and a perpetrator should be made to understand exactly what he has inflicted.

    I will be rereading this article, and thinking about it.