SOUTH BEND, Indiana — Some of the leading figures in the U.S. Catholic Church in charge of the response to the clerical sex abuse crisis convened on the campus of the University of Notre Dame on Wednesday with a consensus that while the Church has been slow to reform, that change is underway.
The event was an initiative of Notre Dame President Father John Jenkins, who opened the forum by summoning the famous words of Saint Francis of Assisi, “rebuild my church,” as inspiration for the event dubbed “The Church Crisis: Where are we now?”
John L. Allen, Jr., editor of Crux, served as the moderator for the evening panel, which included Chilean abuse survivor Juan Carlos Cruz; former FBI agent Kathleen McChesney, who helped lead the U.S. bishops’ response to the crisis after 2002; Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore who, most recently, oversaw the investigation into Bishop Michael Bransfield of the diocese of Wheeling-Charleston; and Peter Steinfels, a long-time religion reporter for the New York Times.
“Most of us, myself very much included, know much less about this painful, stomach churning scandal than we think we know,” said Steinfels who kicked-off the panel discussion.
Steinfels ticked off a number of oft-cited statistics, noting that between 1950-2002, 4 to 5 percent of the American Catholic clergy abused over 10,000 young people and that in 2002 the U.S. Catholic bishops passed a Charter mandating zero tolerance for priests credibly accused of abuse.
Even so, Steinfels, said that fewer people are aware of the “precipitous” drop in abuse between the 1980s and the 1990s.
Statistics such as these, he argued, can be “dangerous,” because of the “excruciating, life-derailing devastation caused by a single case of abuse” — yet Steinfels went on to ask that if America experienced a similar drop in its gun violence rates or that of the opioid epidemic, “would we pretend that nothing significant had happened?”
In January, Steinfels penned a 12,000-word critical essay in Commonweal magazine, scrutinizing the 2018 Pennsylvania grand jury report that chronicled seven decades of abuse in the state, which he said obscured this reality and was guilty of “not telling the truth.”
Steinfels offered five reasons why despite “drastically reduced” numbers of incidents of abuse, the language of crisis is still used to describe the current state of affairs: the global nature of abuse; the downfall of Theodore McCarrick, the once powerful former archbishop of Washington, D.C. who was laicized by Pope Francis earlier this year and revealed the distrust in the American hierarchy between liberal and conservative Catholics; the American civil war over Pope Francis; ongoing state and federal investigations which leads to a “drip, drip, drip of sensational headlines”; and the ongoing suffering and pain of victim survivors that are like “landmines left buried in the ground after a war.”
One of those survivors, Cruz, who was a victim of Fernando Karadima, Chile’s most notorious pedophile priest, and was personally responsible for helping change Francis’s mind on the situation of the Chilean Church, used his opening remarks, to appeal directly to fellow survivors of abuse saying, “there are so many people willing to lend you a hand,” and encouraging them not to give up on their fight.
While noting that he first thought Francis could solve the abuse crisis with a “stroke of a pen,” Cruz faulted the attitude of many members of the hierarchy who he said are using their positions to amass power.
In some of the evening’s most pointed remarks, Cruz called out a number of conservative prelates — Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the former papal representative to the U.S. who has called on Francis to resign over the crisis, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput and American Cardinal Raymond Burke — for “weaponing survivors” to hurt Francis.
“They’ll drop victims as soon as they pass their agenda,” he charged.
Cruz later went on to note that he continues to have frank conversations with Francis about the crisis and what he sees as the necessary path to reform, adding that the Church needs more women “front and center” to “break-up” the “men’s club” of the Catholic Church.
McChesney, one of those women who has been on the front lines working alongside victims for two decades, pointed to Cruz’s courage as an example to other victim survivors to ensure that they know that there are people willing to help and believe them.
While she concurred with Steinfels that “things have changed” in the Church’s response, she emphasized the need for continued accountability as essential for the Church regaining credibility.
“It is so critical for the men and women who have been abused to know that someone is responsible, that someone is taking responsibility for what has happened to them,” she told the audience of an estimated 500 students, faculty, and staff.
McChesney went on to caution against a one-size fits all approach to pastoral care for survivors, saying that “some people want to be reconnected with the Church, some people want nothing to do with the Church” and that the Church must handle this on a “case by case, person by person” basis.
Looking ahead to the future, McChesney said the selection of men for the priesthood is, in her view, more important than the formation programs when they arrive in seminary, noting that you can’t properly form individuals who shouldn’t have been accepted in the first place.
She also said that one concrete step that the Church could take to evidence progress on its handling of abuse would be to break the “log jam” in Rome when it comes to processing abuse cases.
“If companies were run the way the Vatican handles these cases, it would be atrocious for the world economy,” she warned.
Lori admitted that in the 25 years he’s been a bishop that “discovering, learning, struggling to deal in some adequate way with the ugly specter of child abuse” has been the steepest learning curve in his career.
He noted that the bishops’ 2002 Charter served as a “line in the sand,” but that policies and procedures require a “conversion of mind and heart.”
He went on to reflect on the new norms for bishop accountability, adopted by the U.S. bishops last June, noting that “none of these things solve the problem, they only set the direction.”
Lori also spoke of his own experience of investigating the allegations of sexual misconduct and financial corruption of Bransfield, which he characterized as a “trial run,” for the metropolitan model of bishop accountability — where the metropolitan archbishop of a province takes responsibility for overseeing the investigation into other bishops accused of abuse or misconduct within that particular province.
While saying that he did not do the job perfectly — Lori has come under criticism for initially failing to disclose to the Vatican that he was a former recipient of financial contributions from Bransfield — and that the process was “rough, bumpy, rocky,” he argued that “it can work,” noting that the Vatican’s review of the case took place in “lightning speed” in church time.
Looking ahead, he said the most important step the Church can take is to have independent reporting of abuse cases against bishops that is “out of the control” of the bishops, and that lay people must not only have a seat at the table, but that they must also have decision-making power.
He also urged every diocese in the country to release names of credibly accused priests, noting that the lists must not only be comprehensive and accurate, but must include the past assignments of accused priests.
While each of the panelists differed in their assessment of the extent of the reform and what may be most essential in reorienting the way forward, all concurred that way forward must be lay led and in a way that puts survivors first.
“Survivors have gone through horror,” Cruz concluded. “Giving opportunities for survivors to help other survivors is really important.”
“Learning is not an excuse for not acting,” Lori concurred. “We’ve come a long way. But we can never become complacent. Any bishop that tells you he’s done it perfectly is telling you something that ain’t true…the Church has to be humble about this.”
Follow Christopher White on Twitter: @cwwhite212
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