Few things trigger as negative a feeling as paedophilia, particularly when its perpetrator is someone within a position of sacred trust. For many people, paedophilia is the ultimate horror. Outrage seems the only appropriate reaction. And why not? In the face of paedophilia, there should be outrage because few things do greater harm to a person than to be violated in this manner. The harm done to a victim in this kind of abuse can’t be overstated. Paedophilia is a horror, pure and simple, and the first sympathy must always be for its victim.

But with that being said, and it’s an important preamble before anything else may be said, something else should be added, namely, that it’s important too to have compassion for the person, man or woman, who is a paedophile. This is not an easy, nor popular, thing to say, but it needs to be said.

We must be careful to not think of ourselves as compassionate too quickly. Compassion is easy when it can’t be misunderstood and when it leaves us feeling fully righteous. It’s easy to be compassionate when it makes us feel clean and good, especially if it also makes us look good to others. It doesn’t take much depth of character to feel compassion for starving children, or for the tired and tortured faces of the refugees we see daily on our television screens, or for most anyone else who stands before us in crisis and tears. Compassion in these situations is so natural that, were we not moved, there would clearly be a certain moral and psychological deficiency in us. Any normal person feels sympathy in the face of innocent pain which reaches out to him or her. It’s natural to be compassionate when that compassion is wanted, understood, gives us a clean feeling, and makes us look good besides.

Things aren’t as easy when our compassion is misunderstood, when it makes us look compromised, tainted, unclean, and when it doesn’t give us a good feeling. It is far easier to have sympathy for a victim than for a killer. It is also far easier to be empathic with an innocent person who has been violated by an abuse of trust than it is to have those same feelings for the person who has breached that trust. Thus it is not easy to feel for, understand, or reach out in empathy to, a paedophile. To do so means not just risking misunderstanding, it also means reaching beyond that special abhorrence we reserve for those persons whom we feel the most moral distance from and against whose very weakness we can feel sane, whole, and good. Simply put, I don’t necessarily feel very good when I compare myself to Mother Theresa, but I certainly feel more healthy when I match myself against a paedophile. Similarly, I can feel pretty good about myself when I publicly display my concern and sympathy for starving children, oppressed refugees, and most every other kind of victim, but I don’t feel the same self-assurance when I publicly display empathy for a paedophile.

And yet that is precisely what mature compassion asks for, namely, empathy for that person in our society who suffers from the least glamorous of all sicknesses, paedophilia. Among all illnesses this is the least understood and the least glamorous.

To begin with, it must be understood that every paedophile was, first of all, himself or herself a victim, someone who as a child had his or her wholeness shattered by the sickness of an adult. It is not by choice or personal fault that he or she carries this sickness, anymore than anyone chooses to have a defective gene. Every abuser was first abused and a terrible part of that tragedy is that sometimes, though not always, the victim victimizes others. Thus we should have a special sympathy for a paedophile because, as a child, against his or her will, this person was infected with the least glamorous of all illnesses – and one that brings with it an ultimate stigma.

Each generation, by virtue of its place in history, is asked to carry some specific burden forward towards a new moral and psychological plateau. Part of our generation’s task, both in the church and in the world, is to carry the stigma of paedophilia, and to carry it without scapegoating it perpetrators by falling into a one-sided and immature compassion. To be caught up in all these “scandals” right now is not, as is the common thought, a disgraceful waste of time, energy, and money. To be part of this is rather to be part of a critical, defining, moral moment in history. That moment asks of us a number of things: to expose and understand something that has for too long been hidden, to recognize and deal with the real sickness this leaves in its victims, and, not least, to embrace in genuine compassion those who suffer from the least glamorous of all illnesses.