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Forgiveness… and Apathy

Forgiveness… and Apathy


by Eric Bonetti

As Christians, we are often reminded of the importance of forgiveness if we and others are to heal from past injuries. But how does this align with anger, accountability, and blame?

Some time ago, I exchanged comments on Facebook with a person who counseled a battered spouse to “turn the other cheek.” My response – not universally popular – was to suggest forgiveness, but also to take immediate legal action. Follow-on comments ran the gamut, but what was fascinating was that very few commentators recognized that forgiveness and accountability can go hand-in-hand.

As I’ve gotten older, I look back on the various parishes at which I’ve been a member. Sometimes, I think about the challenges they’ve faced. And all too often, I realize that the challenges were self-inflicted. Many times, the issue was a reluctance to speak up, to ask questions, to challenge authority. In other cases, people were willing to speak up, but the parish/family system worked hard to maintain the status quo, even when the status quo resulted in hurt to others.

Our tendency to use forgiveness as a way to avoid accountability first came into focus for me a few years after I graduated from college. A dear friend of mine, Jane (not her real name), had been ordained an Episcopal priest, and was happily serving in a vibrant suburban New England parish. Surrounded by a swirl of young families, church activities, an adoring boyfriend and loads of volunteer work, Jane’s life seemed set on a happy trajectory.

Then, one day, things abruptly changed. Jane was at a social event, when a friend and local bank employee casually remarked, “It is so nice that you are doing so much to help my neighbors. They’ve really been through a lot the last few years.”

Smilingly wanly, Jane turned away in confusion. Serving in a small town, she certainly was aware of the plight of the family in question. Over the past several years, she had been able to steer them to various social services agencies, and had provided modest cash assistance from her discretionary fund from time to time. But the assistance was far from generous, and she regretted her inability to do more.

A few days and several inquiries later, it quickly emerged that the funds had not been going to a family in need, but were instead being taken by a much loved member of the parish with access to the accounting software. Two sets of accounting records were being maintained, with the fraudulent set concealing a variety of improper disbursements. Much of the money had been taken in the form of checks to this local family, whose surname was similar to that of the parishioner. Thus, cashing the checks was an easy matter, and the veil of discretion around what was thought to be a pastoral care issue preempted questions by those in the know.

When Jane reported the matter to her rector, he exploded in anger. Not over the theft, but instead that Jane would dare criticize someone in the parish. No matter that the police soon confirmed fraud was massive in scale – Jane was soon without a job, and quickly became persona non grata in the diocese. It was not until several years later, and a move to the west coast, that Jane again returned to steady employment.

Ironically, members of the parish later remarked that the issue wasn’t that Jane had reported the theft. It was that they purported to have forgiven the culprit, and felt that Jane’s reporting the crime somehow interfered with that forgiveness. And, to this day, members of that parish have never really reconciled with Jane, who suffered tremendous heartache over her efforts to do what was right.

Lessons learned? For me, forgiveness all too often can be an excuse to avoid change. We lose sight of the Jesus who turned the money changers out of the temple; the Jesus who loved the poor and the destitute, but had scant patience for those who misused power.

Instead, we prefer to “forgive” our way out of social justice. Discrimination, racism, sexism, homophobia, bullying, harassment, abuse, misuse, outright theft – we ignore all these things in the name of getting along. “That would never happen here,” we say, as these very things happen right under our noses, and all too often within the church itself.

Yes, forgiveness is vital, for anger and resentment, left unchecked, can quickly become cancers of the soul. Yet forgiveness, left unchecked, becomes apathy, which in turn corrodes the very essence of life itself.



Eric Bonetti is a former nonprofit professional with extensive change management experience. He now works as a realtor.

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Eric Bonetti

Jerald, one additional thought. Episcopal clergy hold one of the very few jobs in the world today that have near-absolute job security. Most of us work in at-will jobs, where we can be fired for any reason at all–or no reason. On the other hand, Episcopal clergy, like other clergy, by definition, occupy a position of power. That power is enhanced by that job security. Laity, however, have very little recourse in the event of clergy misconduct. The parish system instinctively supports clergy. As the sexual misconduct prevention and training materials here in Virginia note, “parishes rarely rally around the victim.” And let’s face it–in cases of tight budgets, it is almost always the lay staff that pays the price.

Eric Bonetti


I agree with you, and wanted to share my friend’s story as a reminder that clergy can suffer grave injustices, too. But it’s vital to remember that an inherent power differential exists between clergy and laity; when this differential is exploited, the situation is inherently abusive.

Ann Fontaine

Yes Jerald. I am a priest of 20 years so am not unaware of what you say. But I believe clergy and leadership can cultivate and expect a climate of kindness. Not react to those who want chaos. But call everyone to a higher standard of life.

Ann Fontaine

Jerald in my years as both a lay person and priest — the most damage I have witnessed is by clergy. I agree there are bullies in congregations – training vestries and leaders and bishops to deal with these incidents is essential.

Jerald Liko

I happen to be a clergy spouse, so I witness the pain you certainly know well, the tears of a regular person after the collar comes off and the kids are tucked away into bed. Clergy have the greatest potential to cause pain on a large scale, but the burden of forgiving and continuing to love, day after day, lies much more heavily upon our clergy than on others. Since the discussion is about forgiveness, I feel that my role is to speak up and call attention to the dual facts that (1) our priests are human too, and (2) for every legitimate complaint, there are a hundred cruel and insubstantial attacks. Again, I don’t think it’s a one-way street, I am just deeply wary of any narrative in which priests are automatically villains because they represent the “institution” or what-have-you.

Jerald Liko

Because we work so hard to emphasize the free (not cheap) nature of God’s grace, we sometimes forget the need for repentance as a precursor to forgiveness. And we sometimes forget that repentance means more than an expression of sorrow – if I recall correctly, the Greek term implies a “turning about,” a genuine intent to change.

I have deep sorrow and sympathy for the people here and everywhere who have been hurt by clergy. But at the same time, I think that a conversation framed in terms of capricious clergy and well-meaning parish whistleblowers addresses the exception and not the rule, which is an endless onslaught of slander and complaint by permanent malcontents lodged within our congregations. I hope this discussion, as it unfolds within the church, will not be framed as courageous-crusaders-against-bad-clergy. The need for repentance and forgiveness is too universal to allow such a simplistic approach.

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