SOUTH BEND, Indiana – To say the least, Father John Jenkins, President of the University of Notre Dame, doesn’t seem in denial about the gravity of the clerical sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the Church in recent months.
After the Pennsylvania grand jury report was released in August, Jenkins said the revelations “are particularly searing to me and the other priests with me today, whose commitment can seem so tarnished, so soaked in filth, by those who so badly abused it.” He pledged the university “will do all we can to create a safe, nurturing environment everywhere.”
Yet befitting an Oxford-educated philosopher, Jenkins also sees complexity in the abuse crisis, including something few people want to say out loud right now: “There’s a tendency, and I don’t think it’s a helpful tendency in this kind of situation, to turn the perpetrators into monsters.”
Jenkins was speaking specifically about ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was forced to resign from the College of Cardinals in June following credible accusations of abuse.
“[The tendency is] just to imagine that they are thoroughly corrupt people, but the problem is that it’s not true. It’s a part of their lives that is deeply problematic, but another part that is not. And that’s why it’s so hard to identify the problem, and sometimes, that person doesn’t seem to see the problem,” he told Crux in an exclusive interview Nov. 5.
The president of Notre Dame also said that even though he’s heard rumors about many people, he hadn’t heard anything specific about McCarrick, who through the years was a force for good in the university which awarded him an honorary degree in 2008.
Jenkins has been under fire for not rescinding the honor, so the university released a statement in August saying it had only done so for Bill Cosby after he was found guilty.
“While the university finds the alleged actions reprehensible and has no reason to question the review board’s findings, it recognizes that McCarrick maintains his innocence and that a final decision in the case will come only after a canonical trial in Rome,” reads the statement.
“It’s tragic, and by this I don’t mean to imply not culpable, but there’s a deep tragedy here,” Jenkins told Crux. “As with many people who are responsible for such acts – I haven’t spoken with him, so I’m speaking generally – there’s a certain rationalization that goes on that allows them to compartmentalize their lives and that’s part of the challenge, a failure to confront reality.”
Jenkins also acknowledged that McCarrick did a lot of good for the Church and the university and defined the prelate’s dual nature as illustrating “the mystery of human freedom and human failure.”
“Our deepest failures are those we don’t see as failures. There’s a sort of moral blindness in what we do, and that’s sometimes the greatest moral tragedy,” he said.
Speaking more broadly about the situation of the Church in the United States, Jenkins said that this is a “decisive phase” that could be an opportunity to grow.
“I think there’s a question about confidence in leadership, but I also think this is an opportunity to think about how we can be more effective,” he said. Yet, on the other side, there’s also an opportunity to fail, “and I think the opinions of the faithful Catholic in this country, they’re deeply discouraged, left and right.”
If there’s an honest effort from the bishops to restore trust, then there’s a real opportunity to move forward, but “we have to have an openness to take the problems seriously and change. We’ll see, the jury is out.”
“The Church has faced many crises in its history, and I hope we do this in a way that is the way of the Gospel and with a commitment to live it at the heart of the solution,” Jenkins said.
The priest also noted that there’s a different attitude among the students and “my generation,” because those in their 50s or 60s have had to deal with the crisis for the past 30 years, while younger generations haven’t. This, he said, could help explain why he hasn’t seen diminished Mass attendance on campus.
“It’s the older people who have this sort of frustration, a yearning to think, see if we can do it better, get it right this time,” he said, noting that a crisis of the magnitude the Church is facing in America forces people to consider why they’re part of the institution and what it means.
“It can lead to a return to some deeper roots and the sources of faith, the mystery of salvation in Christ. That’s an opportunity, but I think that it’s up to the leadership of the Church to respond to the challenge,” he said.
For its part, the university has created two task forces. One, called the Engagement Taskforce, aims to address the abuse issue on campus, giving students, professors and staff the opportunity to share reactions and suggestions.
The second taskforce is focused on determining if there’s something the university can offer to address the situation at large.
“I’m hesitant to say ‘we can solve everything’,” Jenkins said. “I think we should speak on what we know and where we have expertise. I’m expecting recommendations from that group soon.”
Creating something along the lines of Rome’s Center for Child Protection, based in the Pontifical Gregorian University and which trains priests, religious and lay people in the various aspects surrounding safeguarding, from canon law to psychological support for survivors, is something “we’ve talked about,” but Jenkins said there are no firm plans yet.
Jenkins also distinguished between the crisis today, which is one of “confidence in the Church,” and that which arose in 2002, that was about abuse and child protection. Rebuilding the trust is what the Church has to focus on now, he said.
He gave as an example the fact that many of the cases released in the Pennsylvania report are old and even public. Yet, what’s different now is “seeing some very clear cases of some of those bishops, not all, failing in their role to oversee.”
“And then the case of Cardinal McCarrick and what others knew, whether fair or not, I think people connect those two and say, is this a crisis of leadership? Are the bishops capable of overseeing this?” Jenkins said. He did add, however, that many prelates have been leaders, passionate about the protection of children.
Jenkins also talked about the past 13 years during which he’s been president of Notre Dame, through five-year terms, which many faculty consulted by Crux believe will be renewed at least once more when the third is up in 2020.
Among the “high and lows” of the past decade, he noted the 2009 invitation to President Barack Obama to deliver the commencement speech.
“There were people of very good will who protested that [invitation] and put the campus in turmoil and it became a national issue,” he said. That controversy, was a low. “But a high was that there were people who went into the auditorium to try to hackle the president, keep him from speaking, but the students chanted ‘We’re Notre Dame’ as a way of indicating ‘be quiet, we’re going to listen to the president speak’.”
He said he was “tremendously proud” of the students for asserting Notre Dame’s identity at that moment. Asked if President Donald Trump should be expected to deliver next year’s commencement speech, Jenkins said he could neither confirm nor deny it, but “but if you’re betting, I’d advise you to bet against it.”
Looking ahead, he said that the biggest challenge Notre Dame faces today is being a Catholic university for the 21st century, with a “great pressure” in wider society towards secularization, which means that it’s “swimming against the tide” to try to be both a genuine, truly open university rooted in its Catholic values.
“I think we’re seen as an important institution, and I’m proud of the leaders that we graduate from here, and I’m proud of the way in which we can help the Church,” Jenkins said. “I don’t want to be complacent, but I feel some satisfaction in where we are.”