The church, confession, forgiveness and male sexual abuse: from an interview with Patrick O’Leary



As a therapist and a researcher in the area of male sexual abuse, the question of forgiveness is a pertinent one, although I see this more clearly now, than I once did. In the past, due to my own experiences of growing up Catholic in a school in which those hearing young men’s confessions were also subjecting them to violence and abuse, I was not always open to the possible significance of forgiveness in other men’s lives. In therapy contexts I would have been more likely to explore other areas of the conversation rather than open space for discussion about the meaning of forgiveness to the particular person concerned. I would have more easily adopted a position of condemnation towards the perpetrator of abuse rather than see the possible relevance or helpfulness of forgiveness. I would have been more open to survivors expressing outrage than exploring notions of forgiveness.

In recent years, however, I have come to see that for some survivors of abuse, forgiveness can be one of the few options available to them to move their lives forward. This seems particularly true for those who feel they have no option but to live in close relationship with the perpetrator of the abuse, or those for whom their entire social networks and family will continue to be in relationship with the person who was responsible for the abuse they experienced. I have come to realise that some of the people consulting me do not have the same sort of options as I do to sit in condemnation of the perpetrator of the abuse they experienced. This has been a bit of a wake-up call to me, as I have come to see how limiting it can be for a counsellor to take an absolute stand in relation to forgiveness.