The Sexual Abuse Crisis in the Church: Notre Dame's Response
March 4, 2019
Recent months have brought us deeply disturbing news reports of clergy who not only were unfaithful to their vows, but who used the trust afforded by their position to sexually exploit those in their charge; of bishops who failed in their responsibilities to bring offenders to justice and protect the most vulnerable; and, most wrenching, of victims whose lives were so damaged by abuse. We read just last week of an unprecedented gathering in Rome at which Catholic leaders from around the world heard the tragic stories of survivors and discussed what was needed to eliminate such abuse in the Church and combat it everywhere.
I have heard from many in the campus community how the stories of the past months disheartened and challenged their faith. This time has been a real dark night of the soul for many of us. The great mystic and spiritual writer St. John of the Cross, who coined the phrase “dark night of the soul” for the spiritual desolation we sometimes feel, emphasized, as all great spiritual masters do, that such dark nights are sent to purify and deepen our faith, hope, and love.
How can the current situation do this? Perhaps by sharpening the focus of our faith. While the lives of the saints inspire us, the sins of those in the Church — particularly in those entrusted with authority — discourage us and shake our faith. Yet genuine faith is not founded on a confidence in the goodness of human ministers, but on the mystery of salvation offered by Jesus Christ. The Church is the sign and instrument of that mystery, but we hold the treasure in the earthen vessel of human fallibility. True faith calls us not to be discouraged by human sin, but to focus more completely on the hope offered by Christ. If we do this, we can deepen our prayer, strengthen our commitment to live good and holy lives, and foster a hope that will shine more clearly.
Our response, then, demands prayer and reflection, but we must also act. I write to you, the campus community, about steps Notre Dame, as a Catholic university, will take to assist in a response to the current crisis.
Notre Dame’s Response to the Church Crisis
Last October I established two task forces to help inform Notre Dame’s response to the current Church crisis. The first, the Campus Engagement Task Force, was charged with facilitating dialogue and listening to the observations and recommendations of our campus community. Led by Jennifer Mason McAward, associate professor of law and director of the Klau Center for Civil and Human Rights, and Rev. Gerry Olinger, C.S.C., vice president for Mission Engagement and Church Affairs, the task force administered a campus survey and hosted listening sessions to collect the thoughts and perspectives of students, faculty, and staff. The group also provided its own recommendations to me.
A second task force, the Research and Scholarship Task Force, was co-chaired by Kathleen Sprows Cummings, associate professor in the Department of American Studies and the William W. and Anna Jean Cushwa Director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism, and Ann Tenbrunsel, the David E. Gallo Professor of Business Ethics. This task force considered ways in which Notre Dame might respond and assist the Church in this crisis through its research and scholarship.
I am very grateful for the diligent work done by each of the task forces. What follows is a summary of those steps we will take as a result of the recommendations of the task forces. Some of these steps we can take immediately, and others we will work on over time.
Immediate Steps 2019-2020
- Initiate prominent, public events to educate and stimulate discussion
The task forces strongly encouraged that we use Notre Dame’s power to convene experts and foster discussion of the issues facing the Church. In accord with this recommendation, we will make the Church crisis the subject of our 2019-20 Notre Dame Forum. My office will host two campus-wide events – one in fall 2019 that will offer perspectives on where the Church is now, identifying steps that have been taken and problems that must be addressed. We envision a second event later in the academic year that will offer perspectives on where the Church should go from here. This second event will focus not only on the issue of sexual abuse, considered narrowly, but also on the broader questions the current crisis raises, such as structures of accountability in the Church, clericalism, the role of women, creating and sustaining ethical cultures, and the continued accompaniment of survivors. The discussion can be seen as a response to Pope Francis’ call for a synodal Church that invites the participation of all the faithful in discernment and constructive reform. We will announce details on both of these events in the future.
- Offer Presidential Research Grants
As a leading Catholic research university, the task force recommended that Notre Dame encourage and support research and scholarship across a wide range of disciplines that will address issues raised by the current situation. In accord with this recommendation, the President’s Office will provide up to $1 million in the next three years to fund research projects that address issues emerging from the crisis. We will send to faculty an announcement on how to apply for these grants, and I will form a committee to assist me in developing criteria and making decisions about awards.
Ongoing Efforts: 2019 and Beyond
- Encourage and share relevant research and scholarship
In addition to the research that will be supported by the Presidential Research Grants going forward, a number of other initiatives are already underway in service of the Church. Among these are a study of seminaries in the United States by the McGrath Institute for Church Life, under the leadership of its director, John Cavadini, with the goal of producing recommendations for ensuring that seminaries and houses of religious formation are safe environments free from sexual harassment. The McGrath Institute also plans to host a conference on the topic of the co-responsibility of laity and clergy in the Church in the spring of 2020. The de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture hopes to study how canon law can be revised to address more effectively sexual abuse by clergy. We will do what we can to support the work of these and other initiatives by individuals and divisions in the University and disseminate the relevant findings to Church leaders and the Catholic faithful generally.
- Train graduates for effective leadership in the Church during and beyond the crisis
Our Master of Divinity graduate program in theology, our Alliance for Catholic Education teacher and leadership formation programs, and our Echo program for training of catechists are all committed to training ministers and teachers to be aware of issues of sexual abuse and policies and behaviors needed to prevent it. Our Department of Theology has undertaken discussions on how to address the crisis in theology classes, research, and in the formation of students preparing for ministry. We will work with these and other units to encourage their efforts and to help them share their best practices with the wider Church. We will join with others in recommitting ourselves to forming undergraduate, graduate, and professional students who are vigilant about preventing sexual abuse wherever it may occur, who are motivated to place their gifts in service of the Church, and who are ready to take roles as lay leaders in sharing responsibility for the Church.
Preventing, reporting, and addressing incidents of sexual assault or harassment by anyone on our campus has been a high priority in recent years. We will redouble efforts to ensure that we meet the highest standards in this area. I will work with relevant units to consider further steps we might take, and will report on these steps to the campus community in the future.
- Redouble efforts to create a culture of accountability and transparency around sexual assault and misconduct on our own campus, whether perpetrated by laypersons or clergy
My office will monitor progress on these efforts and other relevant initiatives that may emerge and report back on progress toward the end of the 2019-20 academic year.
In his Apostolic Exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis urges us, as he put it, to give priority to “time” over “space.” Giving priority to space, he explained, “means madly attempting to keep everything together in the present.” Giving priority to time “means being concerned with initiating processes … and engaging other persons and groups who can develop them to the point where they can bear fruit in significant historical events.”
Real progress will be achieved by initiating with others processes that include careful thought, study, continual improvement of laws, policies and practices, and sustained support for survivors. Most of all, it requires a change in hearts that leads us to a common and dedicated effort to prevent sexual assault, harassment, and abuse in any form by anyone. As I join others in praying for survivors, I will do what I can to prevent these terrible offenses. I encourage everyone, each in their own respective positions and roles, to contribute to real and lasting change that will prevent sexual assault and abuse, in the Church and outside it, and to support survivors. To the extent we can do this, the dark night of the current crisis will lead us to a hopeful dawn.