NEW YORK — Kathleen McChesney, a leading trailblazer in the fight against clergy sexual abuse, will receive the highest honor in the U.S. Catholic Church.

On Sunday, the University of Notre Dame announced that McChesney, who worked for decades in law enforcement before being tapped to establish and lead the Office of Child Protection for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), will be awarded the 2020 Laetare Medal, the nation’s oldest and most prestigious Catholic award.

Her career in law enforcement dates back to the 1970’s, where she first worked as a police officer and then a detective in Washington State, investigating homicides and sex crimes, including that of the serial killer Ted Bundy. She then entered the FBI, eventually reaching the third highest position in the bureau until she was recruited by the U.S. bishops to parlay that experience into helping restore trust in an institution struggling to respond to the escalating scandals of clergy abuse and cover-up.

“It is often the Church’s darkest moments that call forth great faith and courage,” said Notre Dame president Father John Jenkins in a statement announcing McChesney’s section as this year’s prizewinner.

“In awarding Dr. McChesney the Laetare Medal, we recognize her courage, tenacity and love for the Church in a tireless pursuit of justice for victims, accountability for abusers and measures that prevent this crisis from continuing. Her example reminds us of Jesus’ words, ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice,’” Jenkins wrote.

During her time at the USCCB, McChesney was responsible for helping every U.S. diocese implement the newly adopted Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, often referred to as the “Dallas Charter” — where she, at times, faced an uphill battle of implementing best practices for accountability and transparency, yet ultimately gained widespread respect for her persistence.

Upon hearing the news of her selection, John Carr, a long-time colleague of McChesney’s at the USCCB, said that her leadership in responding to clergy sexual abuse is unmatched by anyone.

“What she has given the Church is a unique example of principled leadership, persistence, credibility and integrity,” said Carr, who now serves as the director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Teaching and Public Life at Georgetown, which is playing a leading role in responding to the crisis.

“Everyone says we need lay leadership to overcome the clergy sexual abuse crisis,” Carr told Crux. “Kathleen has been providing it for two decades. No one has done more to protect the young and vulnerable in our family of faith than Kathleen. As a parent, survivor and Catholic, I am enormously grateful for her moral leadership.”

McChesney told Crux that she was “stunned” to learn of her selection, but said that she considers it to be “symbolic” and “a recognition that so many people have had the courage to come forward and report their abuse and that they weren’t ashamed to do it and were willing to discuss some of the most horrible things that have happened to them.”

“It’s not about me,” she insisted, adding that it’s an acknowledgement of the work of many people who have been “trying to right the ship…so that people can participate in Catholic ministries safely and confidently.”

“This has been a daily effort by literally thousands of Catholics in this country for a number of years,” she continued, adding that she hopes her selection helps to recognize the many lay people committed to the cause, especially victim survivors, victim assistance coordinators, and the loved ones of those who have been abused.

She said that she also hopes that this shines a spotlight on those “who weren’t believed or were ignored.”

“This recognizes that all of them were trying to do the right thing,” she added. “It took a lot of tragedy to convince some in church leadership that this was a horrible problem of abuse and abuse of God granted power that went awry.”

The Laetare Medal is announced each year on the fourth Sunday in Lent, known as Laetare Sunday and dates back to 1883, when Notre Dame established the award to serve as the American counterpart to the Golden Rose, a papal honor that goes back to the 11th century.

The award has a rich history in American Catholic life, with previous recipients including President John F. Kennedy, Dorothy Day, Vice President Joe Biden, former Speaker of the House John Boehner, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, Sister Norma Pimentel, and Hollywood actor Martin Sheen.

The Laetare medal bears the Latin inscription, Magna est veritas et praevalebit (“Truth is mighty, and it shall prevail”) and recipients of the annual award are honored for their distinguished work “whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the Church and enriched the heritage of humanity.”

McChesney continues to work with dioceses and religious organizations around the world  on issues related to child protection through Kinsale Management Consulting, which she founded.

Earlier this academic year, McChesney participated in the opening event of Notre Dame’s presidential forum, “Rebuild My Church: Crisis and Response.”
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“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 in September.

McChesney will receive the award, along with an honorary degree at the university’s 175th commencement ceremony in May.

Follow Christopher White on Twitter: @cwwhite212 

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