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Task forces on church sexual abuse crisis to gather campus feedback, assess research initiatives

| Monday, November 5, 2018

In response to the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse crisis, Notre Dame is taking a two-pronged approach.

University President Fr. John Jenkins announced in October the creation of two tasks forces focused on the crisis: a Campus Engagement Task Force and a Research and Scholarship Task Force. Listening sessions headed by the first task force begin Monday, with a total of seven sessions aimed at faculty, staff and students throughout the next two weeks.

“The University of Notre Dame has both an opportunity and an obligation to direct its thought, prayer and scholarly resources to helping the Church at this challenging moment,” Jenkins said in a statement to The Observer. “We are responding to this through the creation of two task forces that will address the issues at hand in different ways. In the end, we will assess the findings and provide tangible and productive suggestions for a way forward.

“I am indebted to the leadership and members of both of the task forces as they take on this difficult work.”

Law professor Jennifer Mason McAward heads the Klau Center for Civil and Human Rights and is serving as one of the co-chairs of the Campus Engagement Task Force. The committee will aim to bring the community together to gather ideas on how to address the current crisis, Mason McAward said.

“Notre Dame is a home to its students and an employer to its staff and faculty and so it’s also important to gather the community in a meaningful way and help people process their pain and also listen to their suggestions for how to move forward,” she said.

Fr. Gerry Olinger, vice president for mission engagement and church affairs, is serving as the other co-chair of the Campus Engagement Task Force. Following the campus listening sessions, the committee will use the comments to formulate recommendations for the University’s next steps forward, Olinger said.

“We really want to encourage people to participate,” he said. “I think it’s really going to strengthen the work of our task force to have a broad representation of our campus community involved. It’s really going to strengthen the final product we’re able to produce.”

While part of the engagement task force’s mission is to help the community discuss and heal from the crisis, its purpose is not only pastoral, Mason McAward said.

“Pastoral care is one aspect of what we’re doing but thinking about other ways in which the University can seek prevention are certainly within our purview and things that we’d really like to hear about,” she said.

Ann Tenbrunsel, the David E. Gallo Professor of Business Ethics, said she sees a strong connection between the Campus Engagement Task Force and the Research and Scholarship Task Force, which she is co-chairing.

“I think the first step is listening, understanding,” she said. “There’s a lot of information out there now but I think we need to listen to as many people as we can. It’s part of the healing process; but really more than that, I think [it] can contain additional insight into … ‘What should we be doing?’”

Tenbrunsel said the committee will assess what expertise Notre Dame has to offer as well as initiatives and research spearheaded by outside institutions. It will then use this information to help formulate Notre Dame’s next steps in responding to the abuse crisis. Grounding the community’s suggestions with “evidence-based responses” is an important part of effective reform, Tenbrunsel said.

“You can reform and it can be ineffective and you can reform and it’s worse or you can reform and improve,” she said. “Clearly I don’t have any disagreement in what direction it should go, but I think basing it on expertise, as this task force is doing, allows it more likelihood that that path will be followed.”

Professor Kathleen Sprows Cummings, director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism, will also be co-chairing the Research and Scholarship Task Force. Ultimately, she said, she hopes the task force will be able to propose three or four research projects the University could undertake to address the crisis.

“It’s some chance to respond [to the crisis] as I am Catholic and a member of the laity, and to use the resources we have at Notre Dame too,” she said. “This is not the only thing happening in the Church right now, but it is the most important thing happening in the Church and I think to not do something like this would be being complicit in the crisis in a way, by not trying to use your own expertise or gifts to move forward from this.”

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About Natalie Weber

Natalie is a junior majoring in English with minors in Journalism, Ethics & Democracy and Computing & Digital Technologies. She serves as News Editor at The Observer and is a native of Western Colorado.

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