An Advent Reflection on Child Abuse.
December 15th, 2009
By Kelly Clark

I just returned from a trip to Australia, where I traveled to take a class as part of my studies for a Master’s Degree in Theology—a course I am taking as I consider my own vocational direction, and not because of the child abuse cases I regularly file against churches.  I was glad to get away “down under,” to jump into academia, to wander about in Melbourne in the warm sunshine and friendliness of the Aussies, glad, especially, to get away from child abuse for a few days.  Or so I hoped.

My first day there—the first Sunday of Advent, as it happened–I found myself unexpectedly in a beautiful Catholic chapel at Newman College on the campus of the University of Melbourne, listening to a stunning Advent choral concert.  I pondered the ironies: me, a lawyer who has sued the Catholic Church for nearly twenty years, but also a Christian man hungry for spiritual truth and beauty, sitting among these devout Catholic people, enjoying their hospitality.  Twice in my life I have almost joined the Catholic Church, once only about 8 years ago, well after I had begun to do this kind of work, and once as a young law student; neither time have I been able to make the leap from Canterbury to Rome—from Anglicanism to Catholicism—the last time because I simply could not get around what I have learned in the child abuse cases.  But as I sat at Newman College in Melbourne, listening to Palestrina, to Thomas Talis, to Bach and Handel, I was for a few precious moments free from the agonies of the child abuse cases, free from worry about my clients– about their addictions, their depressions, their suicides– free to bask in the beauty of the Christian celebration of Advent in a Catholic chapel.

But as I walked out and headed over to the chapel at Trinity College—the Anglican college at University of Melbourne—for another service, this one a celebration of the Eucharist for the First Sunday of Advent, I thought about the day in a few weeks when I would take the deposition of the Archbishop of Portland, asking him about the actions of Father H, one of his priests who has abused children.  I thought about the questions I would need to ask him, about the way the Archdiocese of Portland has treated child abuse survivors, both historically and in litigation over the last two and a half years since the Archdiocese emerged from bankruptcy. Any of you who have followed these blogs will recall my frustration at the broken promises—promises to treat abuse victims with understanding and Christian compassion, to expedite the legal process to find resolution and healing— promises all broken in a return to scorched earth tactics in litigation.  I wondered how the same great faith that produced the beauty that I had just witnessed at Newman College Chapel could also produce a church that would repeatedly violate the Spirit of its Lord in allowing children to be abused, and then in abusing them again when they seek justice.  I considered the words of Jesus in Matthew 25—“whatever you have done to the least of these my brothers and sisters, so you have done to me”—and in a rush of anger I found myself wanting to shout those words at the legal teams for the Catholic Church and demand that they also consider them.  I quieted, then, and  prayed for guidance, for humility, lest I become too self-righteous or judgmental—I who have also failed to live up to my calling so many times, hurting so many people along the way. 

I found myself wishing I could ask the Archbishop of Portland to come sit with me at Newman Chapel, and then again at Trinity Chapel, to take in the choral anthems and to break the holy bread together, and then to talk about these things, not as trial lawyer and deponent, but as two Christian men trying to solve a problem.  I found myself thinking we could probably settle this case—probably all of the cases– in twenty minutes, focusing more on the healing of my client and the treatment for this sick priest than on anything monetary, which is not what my 17 year-old client cares about anyway.  I wondered if it might not be just that easy.

But then I reminded myself what my friends so often tell me—that I am often highly naïve and too trusting, and that I should just stop hoping for things that can never happen.  Probably they are right, I thought.  But still, as I turned up the sidewalk towards the doors of Trinity College Chapel, I felt immensely sad.  Sad for abuse survivors, most of all, but also sad for a broken church, for broken promises and for broken people.  And so I sang the opening hymn at the Advent Eucharist—“O come, O come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel”—with all the air in my lungs, with a broken voice, and with tears in my eyes.