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A Catholic's Confession

In an interfaith couple, the religion you bring to the marriage becomes like your family of origin. While it is okay for you to find fault with it, heaven forbid your spouse has any criticism. Luckily, Barry, my Jewish husband, is wise enough to let me vent my disappointment with the failures of members of the Catholic leadership without ever joining in himself.

Lately, there has been a lot for me to vent about. Sexual abuse committed by individual priests is troubling enough, but the bigger scandal to me was the administrative mishandling of the situation. Some members of the Catholic Church's leadership seemed to be more concerned with protecting the reputation of the Church and the priests involved than they were with helping young victims and their families. Even more disturbing, they did not protect unwary members from future abuse.

Had Barry chosen to pass judgment on the Catholic Church rather than discuss what I was distressed about, I might have taken a defensive stance and provided arguments against prejudicial generalizations. Don't assume that all priests are guilty or suspect. These abuses were committed by a small percentage of priests and shouldn't negate the good done by the majority of priests. Don't assume that this is just a Catholic problem. You can find abuse by people in positions of great trust in any religion, including Judaism; and, unfortunately, in many cases their administration covered up for them as well. Don't assume that you can judge a religion by failures in its leadership. It is inevitable that the behavior of religious leaders will reflect upon the religion as a whole, but the hierarchy is not the Church--the people and their relationship with God are the Church.

These defensive arguments are valid, but they do nothing to help repair the damage done. In fact, they may well get in the way since the first step to making amends in both Catholicism and Judaism is admitting that you have made a mistake. I don't know of any religion that expects humans to be perfect. But, most believe that we can and should continually work to be better, to correct our shortcomings, and to do the right thing. And the first "right thing to do" is to admit when you are wrong.

We are approaching Rosh Hashanah, the day on which Jews believe that God opens the Book of Life and writes, "Who will live and who will die; who will be serene and who will be disturbed; who will be poor and who will be rich; who will be humbled and who will be exalted." These decisions are not "sealed" until ten days later, on Yom Kippur. Understandably, this period inspires increased reflection and particular care to make amends for past transgressions.

Catholics and Jews agree that a better relationship with God will come only through making sincere efforts at making peace with others and God. While they may disagree on the details of our connection with God, people in both religions go about making peace in roughly the same way. First you have to realize that you have erred and be genuinely sorry for what you've done. You have to ask and work for forgiveness from both the person you've hurt and from God. In addition, you have to be determined not to make the same mistake in the future.

Jews have a Hebrew word for it, teshuva. The word has no direct translation since it denotes not just the emotions of remorse but the physical motion of correcting your course of action. You can't just say you are sorry, you have to make reparation and you have to make a sincere effort to change future behavior. There is a physical connotation of actively turning away from the wrong path to the right path. It has always been my understanding that Catholics believe this, too.

I think this belief (in all of what teshuva entails) is why, after so much time, the scandal in the Church does not appear to be approaching closure. Indeed, it seems like it may just be continuing to unfold. I'm not convinced that the people involved have fully sorted out which of their actions were morally wrong and which they consider morally justified. I'm also not sure anyone understands how the situation can best be made right. For example, the Boston Diocese fears it will go bankrupt if it tries to make a monetary reparation to victims. Should the burden of such a repayment weigh more heavily on the needy whose programming gets cut than the leaders who need to make things right? As for turning back to the right path, many members of the Church are beginning to realize that leaders can get as lost as followers. Members want to have greater input in navigating the path to a rightful solution.

In Jewish law, if someone sincerely asks for your pardon, you must grant it to them. I'm not sure that this is spelled out in Catholic doctrine, but I suspect that most Catholics feel this way, as well. I'm optimistic that most Catholics want to be able to forgive and regain our trust in those involved in this situation. We just know there is still a lot of work left to do before that can happen.

Hebrew for "Head of the Year," the Jewish New Year. With Yom Kippur, known as the High Holy Days. Hebrew for "Day of Atonement," the final of ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah. Occurs during the fall and is marked by a 24-hour fast. One of the most important Jewish holidays. Hebrew for "return," the way of repenting for sins in Judaism. The term is most associated with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Teresa McMahon

Teresa McMahon, Ph.D., lives with her husband Barry Fishman and two children, Claire and Emily, in Michigan, where she is a member of Temple Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor. In addition to singing and dancing in her family room with her daughters, she is an educational researcher.

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