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The way forward to reconciliation

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But is truth enough? We say it's not. The next step is reconciliation.

In No Future Without Forgiveness, Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu tells us that negotiations, peace talks, forgiveness and reconciliation happen most frequently not between those who like one another. They happen precisely because people are at loggerheads and detest one another as only enemies can.

In Guatemala, researchers are now uncovering secret police archives that document the torture and killing of the country's citizens for more than a century. In Los Angeles, the release of confidential priest personnel files is an important part of the recent settlement agreement. These files document pain and unimaginable suffering, but simply releasing their contents to a judge is not by itself a comforting action.

For many victims and their loved ones, the future has become unimaginable because the present is held captive by past grievances and offenses. They struggle with feelings of guilt, anger and resentment. And while anger and hurt are fitting and proper, unlike fine wine, they do not improve with age. Lewis Smedes once said that one of God's better jokes was to give us the power to remember the past without the power to undo it.

For the latter part of the 20th century, many countries worldwide used truth commissions to address human-rights abuses over a certain period of time or in relation to a particular conflict in that nation. These commissions have fact-finding as their core, but they are also known for their focus on healing situations that have little hope for resolution.

The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established in 1995, is one of the better known applications of this process. In general, the goal is to resolve conflict leftover from the past. Less well known is Guatemala's truth commission, the Historical Clarification Commission, established in 1994 by the Oslo Accords. Its mandate was to clarify with objectivity, equity and impartiality the human rights violations and acts of violence connected with the armed confrontation that caused suffering among the Guatemalan people during the nation's 36-year civil war. It was not established to judge, but rather to provide an answer to the questions: Why did part of a society resort to armed violence in order to achieve political power? Why did these acts of brutality take place?

Recent events in the Los Angeles Archdiocese suggest that the Catholic Church, as an institution, is now facing the consequences of choosing legalistic methods to address the clergy sexual abuse crisis rather than using a process of truth and reconciliation. The release of the Los Angeles priest documents, though helpful in getting to the truth, will neither remove the scars of the church's wounds nor alleviate the suffering of the victims of clergy sexual abuse. As in Guatemala, the wounds within the Catholic Church have no remedy.

Cardinal Roger Mahony's recent statement reiterates this reality: "So many of the victims told me in various ways that even though the cases are resolved, even though they're receiving some compensation, there really is no way to go back and give them that innocence that was taken from them. It is the one part of the settlement process that I find the most frustrating, because the one thing I wish I could give the victims, I cannot. And that is a restoration of where they were [as children]."

The cardinal also said: "Sometimes I honestly had reached the bottom. I didn't know what to do next. It seemed like everything I tried to do was wrong, somebody thought it was wrong. I think spiritually ... when you are totally empty, the only way up - without your resources - is God. Spiritually, it's been an enormous time, times of frustration but also times of great spiritual strength, knowing that I don't have all the answers and relying on God to show us the way forward."

Cardinal Mahony, it's OK not to know what to do next, but it's not OK to ignore those who can show you the way. The Catholic Church has always taught that the Holy Spirit moves through the community and reveals itself through those around us. The victims of Guatemala and South Africa can show you the way. They know what it's like to be empty, but they also know what it's like to build a future once thought unimaginable.

The Catholic Church must take upon itself the challenge to accept a commission of reconciliation that learns from the best of what this process has taught the world about addressing irreparable harm. A process for truth and reconciliation is not about forgetting the past or denying it. It's about finding a way to create a future that otherwise cannot exist.

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