According to mental health experts, forgiving someone who has wronged us can improve our emotional well-being. Acts of forgiveness can have even more far-ranging societal benefits. For example, the Rwandan gacaca genocide trials relied on a system of forgiveness, allowing defendants who confess to receiving lighter sentences. Part of the reason for adopting this system is to help victimized communities heal.

Forgiveness is a particularly important tenet of religions. In Matthew 18:21–22, Jesus says it’s not enough to forgive a sinner seven times, but “seventy times seven” times.

In an article published by the Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University, Katheryn Rhoads Meek states that forgiveness is “the most crucial concept” in the Bible.  She adds:

Historically, the study of forgiveness fell under the purview of pastors and other religious leaders, who have long known the powerful healing benefits that come with both giving and receiving forgiveness. Lives are transformed, as hope takes the place of guilt, anger, loneliness, and fear, as relationships are restored, and the love of God transforms a life.

boy at windowBut the practice of forgiveness can be abused, and nowhere is this more apparent than in cases of religious child maltreatment. All too often, pious adults who learn that a child has been abused fail to do the right thing. That is, instead of reporting the incident or getting the victim counseling, they urge the child to forgive the perpetrator.

An example of such insensitivity was brought to light in a recent criminal trial. While testifying as a witness, a woman who identified herself as Cheryl said she had been molested by her stepfather from 1994 to 1996, when she was 17. Cheryl said she told her mother about the abuse when it first began, but the woman “acted like it was my fault.” So the teenager confided in the pastor of her New Hampshire fundamentalist Baptist church, Chuck Phelps. According to the witness, Phelps told her she needed “to forgive and forget about it.” Speaking through his attorney, Phelps has said he believed that the victim was 18 when the assaults began and that police and child protective services were notified.

As I note in my book, Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment, Episcopal priest and pastoral psychotherapist Sarah Rieth states that, instead of supporting victims and reporting abusers, cases get swept under the rug. Rieth believes that the “seventy times seven” biblical mandate has, indeed, been abused. “Forgiveness has been confused with accountability,” she told me.

Restorative justice pioneer Howard Zehr criticizes faith communities for failing victims of all kinds. In his chapter “Restorative Justice” that appears in God and the Victim (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999), Zehr explains,

The church should be a place of refuge, but often we have not known how to listen, how to be present to victims. We have told them that their anger is wrong, that they need to move on, to forgive, to forget. We have denied their right to mourn and, instead, have laid new burdens on them. All this is understandable—as part of our effort to distance ourselves from pain and vulnerability—but not at all helpful. [p. 150]

Children are not the only ones who are expected to forgive abusers. Religious institutions and communities routinely carry out the practice, a point I make in Breaking Their Will. Why? Because many of the pious are convinced that they are in the business of forgiving wrongdoers, even when those wrongdoers have harmed children.

Tina Anderson
Tina Anderson

The above mentioned trial, in which Cheryl testified, is a flagrant example. The case involved a defendant named Ernest Willis, who twice sexually assaulted 15-year-old Tina Anderson in 1997. As has been widely reported in the media, Anderson became pregnant from the rapes, after which Anderson’s mother sought counsel with Phelps. He reported the incident to police, but he also made Anderson publicly confess her “sin” of getting pregnant to the congregation. During the same church service, Willis stood up and confessed to adultery. At the time, those sitting in the pews had no idea that the two confessions were related.

Following the double mea culpa, the teenage Anderson was virtually shunned, sent out of state to have her baby in secret. Willis was not picked up by police back then—investigators say the trail went cold, as they could not locate the victim. Furthermore, since Willis had repented, he was permitted to remain a member of the church. (The case was recently reopened; this month, Willis was convicted of multiple counts of statutory and forcible rape.)

The problem of abusing forgiveness was recently highlighted in a New York Times article that reported on the Roman Catholic Church’s adoption of child sexual abuse guidelines. During negotiations, one archbishop stated that he wanted the church to remove its “zero tolerance” provision that forbids priests who had abused minors from returning to the ministry. Instead, the prelate said that some abusive priests should be allowed to serve in a limited capacity. One of his reasons had to do with the fact that the policy, as the Times reported, “contradicted the church’s teachings on reconciliation and forgiveness.”

As Howard Zehr notes, it’s somewhat understandable that, when adults are faced with allegations of child abuse, many would simply like the problem to go away. Some worry about how reporting the abuse might reflect badly on their faith or religious organization. But, in addition, many see forgiveness as a cornerstone of religious doctrine.

Forgiveness is a tricky thing. Many adults find it to be an extremely difficult act. We can teach children about forgiveness in certain circumstances, but expecting them to forgive adults who have emotionally or physically harmed them—while failing to provide those victims adequate support—is, well, unforgivable.

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Janet Heimlich is an award-winning journalist and the author of "Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment," the first book to fully examine the issue of child abuse and neglect enabled by religious belief. In 2012, Janet founded the Child-Friendly Faith Project whose mission is to share knowledge and build community around the issue of religious child maltreatment (RCM) and advocate for and empower those whose lives are impacted by RCM. She also sits on the board of directors of Foundation Beyond Belief and co-hosts the podcast, "Parenting Beyond Belief." Prior to becoming a child advocate, Janet was a freelance reporter for National Public Radio, work for which she won numerous journalism awards; she has also written nonfiction articles for such publications as Texas Monthly and the Texas Observer.

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