‘Survivors need us now’: Panelists gather to discuss Catholic Church sex abuse crisis in 2019 ND Forum keynote event
Four major players in addressing the Catholic sex abuse crisis called for greater transparency, concrete reforms and a better understanding of Church scandals during the Notre Dame Forum’s panel Wednesday night, entitled “‘Rebuild My Church’: Crisis and Response.”
Featured guests included Archbishop of Baltimore William Lori; former FBI executive assistant director Kathleen McChesney; Juan Carlos Cruz, an advocate for clergy abuse survivors; and journalist Peter Steinfels, a previous editor at Commonweal and past New York Times columnist. John Allen, editor of the online Catholic newspaper, Crux, moderated the panel.
Each panelist was invited to reflect on where the Catholic Church stands in addressing the abuse crisis.
Neither the panelists’ commentary nor follow-up questions from the audience made any mention of the archbishop’s controversial history with Church reform. Over the years, Lori has earned a reputation as an opponent of transparency, drawing criticism as recently as this summer for his investigation of former bishop of Wheeling-Charleston Michael Bransfield.
Accountability for the grand jury report
Steinfels, who earlier this year wrote a critique of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report for Commonweal Magazine, opened by sharing his belief that the problem of clergy sex abuse today is over-exaggerated. He referenced data from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice that indicate a general decline in abuse since the mid-20th century.
“Anyone who obscures this dramatic decline, as I think the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report did, is simply not telling the truth,” he said.
Steinfels said the report distorts the reality of the crisis by showing it through the lens of prosecutors, giving the impression that it runs deeper than research suggests.
“The shock and misinformation created by the Pennsylvania Report brought home to me the need for a real history of the sex abuse scandal,” he said. “The dominant narrative has been overwhelmingly shaped by lawsuits to obtain some recompense for survivor victims.”
A multi-faceted approach to addressing abuse
After the Archdiocese of Boston sex abuse scandal in 2002, McChesney was hired to help establish the Office of Child Protection for the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops (USCCB).
Drawing from her experience working with the FBI and USCCB, McChesney emphasized the importance of accountability to the healing of abuse survivors.
“It is so critical to the men and women who have been abused to know that someone is responsible,” she said.
McChesney also highlighted the need for better screening in seminaries.
“Selection is more important than formation,” she said. “… If you have selected the wrong person to go in the seminary … that person is never going to become a healthy cleric,” she said.
While many point fingers at the Church for being slow to reform, McChesney said law enforcement also dropped the ball in investigating abuse allegations — particularly after the Boston scandal.
“I always wondered, where is the law enforcement response?” she said. “… Who missed that lesson, and why?”
Issue fatigue has also stalled progress in fighting the crisis, McChesney said.
“We can’t let our tiredness, our sadness, overtake our passion for continuing to work on these issues,” she said.
The lethargic pace at which the Church adopts reforms is likely to continue, she added.
“I think that the Church will continue to be slow to reform,” McChesney said. “… Sadly, that is the way the Church works.”
A steep learning curve
In order to bring about effective change, it is essential to put policies into practice, Lori said.
“It’s one thing to have policies and procedures in place,” Lori said. “It’s another thing to live them. It’s another thing to draw out from them, the moral values, the moral imperative to address this in the way that God only knows it deserves to be addressed.”
In his introduction, Lori made passing reference to his investigation of former bishop of Wheelings-Charleston, Bransfield.
“I did not do [the investigation] perfectly,” he said. “What I’m happy to report, however, is that the allegations were taken seriously. They were investigated by experts — lay experts — none of whom were in the employment of the Church in any way. … It was not perfect, it was rough, bumpy, rocky, but at least shows it can work.”
The archbishop did not make mention of the harsh criticisms the investigation drew — a June 5 article from the Washington Post found Lori had cut from his investigation report to the Vatican the names of 11 high-ranking clergymen who received cash gifts from Bransfield, including his own. This is not the only time Lori has been the subject of controversy. He was also criticized for his handling of abuse cases in Bridgeport, and is attributed with helping narrow the scope of the Dallas Charter to apply only to priests and deacons — omitting bishops.
As the Catholic Church confronts its abuse crisis, bishops face several learning curves, Lori said.
“I don’t think any of the learning curves have been as steep as discovering, learning, struggling to deal in some adequate way with the ugly specter of child abuse,” he said.
Cruz offered a counterpoint to this reflection during the question and answer session, emphasizing that these “learning curves” must not serve as an excuse for inaction.
“We can’t wait for bishops to finish their learning curve,” he said. “Survivors need us now.”
Bishops and the Church’s culture of protection
Cruz, a survivor of abuse in Chile, has long advocated for survivors. When he first came forward with allegations against former Chilean priest Fernando Karadima, the Vatican did not believe him. It wasn’t until his allegations were found credible that the Pope apologized and invited him to the Vatican.
Cruz said he remained in the Catholic Church despite abuse because he “wasn’t going to let the bad ones win.” He offered encouragement to survivors, saying there were resources for healing, no matter one’s age or gender.
“Know that if you have been abused, if you have gone through that trauma, there are people who are going to be there to help you,” Cruz said.
He said he initially thought having Francis on his side would break the cycle of abuse in the Church.
“The stroke of a pen, it passes a law and this will end — that’s what I thought,” he said. “I went to the Vatican. I saw what happens, and trust me: no pen, no nothing can switch or change this attitude.”
Cruz accused bishops of weaponizing the abuse crisis against Pope Francis, and using it to promote an agenda of “elitism.”
“[Their] way of hurting Francis is by hurting him with the abuse crisis,” he said. “But that’s not what they care about. They’ll drop victims as soon as they pass their agenda.”
Despite bishops’ conversations with the Pope, they continue to cover up sex abuse, Cruz said.
“Nobody holds them accountable, and that needs to stop,” he added.
A continuing conversation
Allen said he received about 18 follow-up questions for panelists. He introduced a faculty member and two students, each of whom presented a question. Then, panelists addressed two questions submitted online. Topics ranged from the role of the laity in addressing the crisis to advice for young Catholics, but none touched on Lori’s past.
As Allen concluded the panel, he encouraged audience members to stay engaged and participate in additional upcoming discussions about the abuse crisis.
“This is not the end of our conversation,” he said. “[It’s] nearly the beginning.”
The Observer spoke with Terry McKiernan, president of online database Bishop Accountability, after the panel. While he said he thought the event offered strong commentary on the crisis, he underlined the need for settings more conducive to back-and-forth dialogue.
“I really hope that Notre Dame will create other opportunities where real conversation can happen — especially among the student body and to the student body teachers about this,” he said.
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