Penance is such a slippery customer that you can kind of see why various religions created an invisible god to bestow forgiveness. The past is past and yet the past lingers and insists like body odor. There is no adequate shower to wash clean with and yet the search for one is unceasing. No one can grasp the past and yet the past grasps with a subtle and powerful certainty.
In Australia, the Roman Catholic Church confirmed that more than 600 children had been abused under its auspices (in the state of Victoria) starting in the 1930's. Most of the 620 cases occurred between the 1960's and 1980's. The admission suggests a sort of penance. Campaigners say the actual number of cases could be as many as 10,000. And even if the true number were 620, what are the implications for the rest of the 1.2 billion-member Catholic Church worldwide?
Part of what is offensive about Vatican sexual abuses is the fact that the church has continued to arrogate to itself the power to adjudicate such matters. What would be a civil crime in any other venue does not deserve a civil proceeding: Let the church investigate the church ... we are trustworthy and honest brokers and don't need anyone else to tell us how to manage our affairs. Of course if that were truly the case, there never would have been a problem in the first place.
Penance. Who can say what adequate penance is, whether private or public? My own feeling with the Vatican is ... take it to civil court and sort things out according to human, civil law. Is this a perfect solution, one that will wash away the body odor of the past? No, but it's the best anyone's got short of invisible gods. Human crime is human crime and human crime is no different in the sacristy or the outhouse.
OK, there's crime punishable in a court of law.
And then there is moral outrage. No one likes getting duped by an organization the proffers a helping hand and then manipulates its petitioners for personal pleasure or gain. It feels criminal even if a court of law is not equipped to get a handle on it. Zen Studies Society, for example, was for almost 50 years the playground of Eido Tai Shimano, a fellow whose sociopathic activities in taking on and then casting off women students and in cooking the books to his own advantage have not yet reached the court system.
Sociopaths, whether Roman Catholic institution or Zen teachers, do not see penance as much more than a way to assure their continued status. They will apologize without apologizing. Penance is not penance -- it is a tool to assure power.
But then there is the penance of those affected by manipulation and malfeasance. I, for example, am truly sorry that I did not -- perhaps could not at the time -- speak out more forcefully in matters concerning Eido Shimano and the people he wounded. Looking back, I think, "What the fuck was the matter with you?!" Not that I was alone in my inabilities and fears, but that's no goddamned excuse. I would sincerely like to make amends for my shiftless lack of effort and I do what I can as a penitent today. And I think others, whether in the Catholic Church or organizational situations like that of Zen Studies Society, have a responsibility to themselves and to others to speak up and speak clearly.
Is there a perfect penance? I doubt it, except among those willing to credit an over-active imagination. The past cannot be changed and cannot be grasped and yet its grasp in the present is undeniable and inescapable. To deny or excuse it is not possible. To talk it to death is not possible.
The only course I can think of is to take a full-frontal-nudity responsibility and then, without any ulterior motive or self-serving excuse, vow never to do that again... even as the knowledge remains that doing that again is entirely possible.
Will it work?
I really don't know.
But practice is good.