“The life and death of each of us has its influence on others”, Paul tells the Church of Rome in our Second Reading today.
It is a reality, a truth, that the Church of Maitland-Newcastle – that we – have learnt over the last twenty-five years or more, and a reality and a truth that we need to hold in our present each and every day.
On this Perpetual Day of Remembrance, we, as Church, are called to remember those of our brothers and sisters who have been harmed – abused – by some members of our Church, and who were further harmed by the callous disregard of others who placed the reputation of the Church above the lives and safety of innocents.
We have had the light of truth, the light of Christ, shone into some very dark corners through the offices of commissions of inquiry, criminal trials, and the brave testimony of survivors. We have been confronted with irrefutable evidence of actions perpetrated by members of the Church – some of whom we may have previously admired – and we have heard of the enduring cost to survivors who live with the impact of their abuse on a daily basis.
We have heard the stories of those who support their loved ones living with the aftermath of abuse, and who suffer alongside them each and every day.
We have also heard the stories of those who could not endure and who have chosen their own time of encounter with a merciful God.
The stories of those who have been abused and harmed, the stories of those who walk that journey with survivors, the stories of those who have had their innocence stolen, had a direct influence on us.
Their pain, their anger, their loss should and must spur us on to change, to a conversion of heart and mind.
This task, of course, is not something Christians should be afraid of; conversion is at the very heart of what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus. The difference now, however, is that the conversion we are called to is not just a personal one, but a conversion of the whole Church.
And the conversion we are called to is about recognising that crimes have been committed, that harm was compounded by a callous disregard for the victims and survivors of abuse, that victims and survivors were not believed when they were brave enough to come forward.
The conversion we are called to is about ensuring that those who have been harmed are supported and assisted, that we face the truth of our past with honesty, that we commit ourselves to ensuring that we do all that we can to make our Church, our communities, places where children and the vulnerable are safe.
We cannot change the past, nor can we ignore it. We cannot pretend that some members of our Church did not abuse children, nor can we abrogate our responsibility to provide redress in ways that are meaningful.
We can, and we must, do all in our power to ensure that the story of our Church’s past is not repeated in our present or our future, that we listen to victims and survivors of the past, and that we listen to the children of today in ways that we failed to do in the past.
The conversion required of the Church – of us – is to realign ourselves with the teachings of Jesus, to acknowledge our failures and seek forgiveness, and to demonstrate our commitment to survivors and victims. Only when we can do that, only we can likewise say that the safety of our children and our vulnerable are priorities, can we say that we walk in the light of Christ.
This Perpetual Day of Remembrance is part of how we can go about that task of conversion. But it is not just about this day. The real change will be seen in how we value our children and our vulnerable, how we address the shameful parts of our history, how we support those who have been harmed and abused, and how we ensure that our future life focuses not on the reputation of the Church but on the safety of its members – on the safety of all its members and not just a privileged elite.
Our task of conversion, however, is not a once-off activity. It is not as simple as just putting safeguarding measures in place and complying with externally set standards, of having robust policies and procedures. At the very heart of the task of conversion is the perpetual commitment to remember what was so that we never again slip back, that we change our hearts and minds not just our external practices.