NEW YORK – A new offering from the University of Notre Dame’s McGrath Institute for Church Life aims to help seminaries and dioceses strengthen formation programs, particularly in pastoral ministry to victim-survivors of sexual abuse.

“Fully Equipped for Every Good Work: A Proposal of Twelve Core Competencies in Ministering to Survivors of Sexual Abuse for Seminary,” outlines twelve competencies for seminaries to adopt for seminarians to demonstrate before they’re ordained.

“The present whitepaper is very much a work in progress; it can serve as the basis for an ongoing and very important conversation about how to best prepare clergy for this delicate ministry, and especially how to best incorporate trauma-informed pastoral care into seminary formation programs and programs of ongoing priestly formation,” Father Thomas Berg, a visiting scholar at the McGrath Institute and a co-author of the proposal, said in a statement.

In the 40-page proposal, the competencies are divided between two sections.

The first five are “competencies in ministering to victims of sexual abuse,” and the latter seven are “competencies in ministering to victims of clergy sexual abuse and to all those impacted by the sexual abuse crisis in the Church.” The competencies are:

  • “Articulate a familiarity with legal definitions of sexual harassment, sexual assault, consent, etc., and with the legal ramifications and applicability of those definitions in cases of sexual abuse.”
  • “Exhibit an understanding of power, with particular capacity to explain trauma responses and symptoms at the intersections of emotional abuse, physical abuse, and spiritual abuse.”
  • “Demonstrate an understanding of trauma-informed pastoral care, and be ready to refer a survivor who needs support beyond the Church to the resources and supports in the broader community.”
  • “Evidence a facility for sharing in small groups with victims and a readiness to embrace vulnerability that this requires.”
  • “Manifest a capacity to manage their own emotional discomfort or distress.”
  • “Demonstrates an understanding of the distinction between clergy child sexual abuse and clergy adult sexual abuse, and of the different dynamics at play in each.”
  • “Articulate a knowledge of the local diocesan policies regarding child protection, any relevant diocesan departments, and acquire familiarity with the personnel who work there.”
  • “Convey a readiness to meet with victims, listen to their stories, and validate their experiences.”
  • “Exhibit a familiarity with the best practices in receiving and ministering to victim-survivors of clergy sexual abuse as they approach the Sacrament of Penance.”
  • “Exhibit an understanding of the need as priests to be present at activities aimed at the healing of survivors, from parish-based initiatives to diocesan or even regional events, and evince an openness to attending or planning such events. This includes familiarity with the practices of restorative justice as applied to the Church’s crisis of clergy sexual abuse.”
  • “Demonstrate an understanding of what happens to a brother priest when he is accused and how to accompany him.”
  • “Manifest a knowledge of the Church’s theology of scandal, including what constitutes the sin of scandal and those circumstances in which it is necessary to let scandal arise.”

The idea to publish this kind of paper arose from the first of two national consultations on the clergy sex abuse crisis in 2021 and 2022 held at Notre Dame and St. Thomas and the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.

About 25 people participated in the consultation, including victim-survivors of clergy sexual abuse, advocates, lawyers, psychologists, scholars, deacons, priests, and bishops. Their goal was to explore new approaches to healing and reconciliation for clergy abuse victims, and one topic of conversation was the current state of seminary and priestly formation in light of the abuse crisis.

“There was a number of victim-survivors of clergy sexual abuse who were participants in that consultation, who voiced their dissatisfaction with the reality that many priests have been ill-equipped to accompany them, to know how to handle someone who has experienced this degree of trauma in their lives,” Berg told Crux. “The opinion was very clearly stated that our men in seminary, and oftentimes our priests, are just not well equipped to deal with that.”

That feedback, Berg said, is where the concept for the paper was born. Berg explained that seminaries currently have courses on pastoral theology or pastoral care, pastoral ministry and introduction to counseling “that’s very useful” to seminarians. However, trauma-informed care isn’t a part of current seminary formation, which they found would better prepare seminarians.

“Trauma-informed pastoral care has been very recently developed in the last five to 10 years,” Berg explained. “So, this is not a criticism of seminaries, it’s just to say that there’s a lot of good stuff available out there, and it’s really helpful and it’s not hard to get your hands on, and we just need to get this into the thick of seminary pastoral formation and ministry.”

Trauma-informed care is defined in-part as a framework that “emphasizes physical, psychological, and emotional safety for both providers and survivors, and that creates opportunities for survivors to rebuild a sense of control and empowerment.”

Along with Berg, the proposal was authored by Dr. Timothy Lock, director of Psychological Services at Saint Joseph’s Seminary & College in New York, and Dr. Justin Anderson, a professor and Chair of Moral Theology at Seton Hall University in New Jersey.

Throughout the process they consulted with mental health professionals who specialize in care for those suffering from trauma, professionals who offer psychological services and growth counseling to seminarians, other seminary formators, survivors of abuse, seminarians, and clergy.

The next step, according to Berg and John Cavdini, director of the McGrath Institute, is to get the report in the hands of U.S. seminary rectors and bishops, and then solicit seminaries to publicly sign on to ensure a commitment.

From the bishops’ perspective, Cavadini and Berg said they believe that the competencies can benefit ongoing priestly formation classes dioceses run for priests who are already ordained.

“There’s a lot of priests out there who this was just never a part of their training and could really benefit from some ongoing formation, from ongoing training,” Berg explained. “I would hope the bishops would make the connection that this would be good for their priests.”

Cavadini said the proposal is another attempt by the McGrath Institute to try and positively influence seminary culture. It follows five benchmarks proposed by the McGrath Institute in 2020 to help seminaries deal with sexual misconduct, which have been signed onto 28 American seminaries. Those benchmarks stem from a 2019 study “Sexual Harassment and Catholic Seminary Culture: The First Sociological Survey of Seminarians.”

With the latest proposal, Cavadini said it’s a way for the Church to be less reactive.

“The whole point is to stop being a culture that is just reactive to crises and only does stuff when a crisis comes up, but to be ahead of the curve so that we’re already doing stuff, and hopefully make every flare up of this less serious and less frequent,” Cavadini said.

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