Notre Dame conference ponders ‘truth and reconciliation’ process for abuse crisis


SAN FRANCISCO — “It takes a village to raise a child” is an African proverb that summarizes the need for an entire community of people to interact positively with children for those children to grow in a safe and healthy environment. 

When it comes to the Catholic Church and addressing the abuse crisis, experts say the entire “village” must be involved, including the laity.

This was the impetus for Daniel Philphott, professor of Political Sciences at University of Notre Dame, and Katharina Westerhorstmann, Professor of Theology, Franciscan University of Steubenville, to convene a day-long consultation to discuss the merits of a truth and reconciliation process for the Church.

Some 30 people, including abuse victims, theologians, canon lawyers, journalists and advocates, gathered at the University of Notre Dame for the consultation titled “The Truth Will Make You Free: What Promise Do National Truth and Reconciliation Processes Offer for the Catholic Church’s Response to the Sexual Abuse Crisis?” funded by the Church Sexual Abuse Crisis Research Grant Program sponsored by Notre Dame’s President’s Office.

“One of the big things that came out of it for me was how commonly survivors feel like they haven’t received empathetic, pastoral, heartfelt attention from the Church. Maybe they’ve gotten a reparation settlement,” Philpott told Crux earlier this month. “Maybe they got a meeting with the bishop. But many feel like there hasn’t been a lot of heartfelt acknowledgement of their suffering, and what they experienced from the Church.”

Crux discussed with Philpot the differences between legalistic and restorative justice, the possibility of a truth commission being set up to address the crisis, much like countries such as Argentina, South Africa or Guatemala have done to overcome national crisis following violent years, such as a military rule or apartheid.

What follows are excerpts of that conversation.

Crux: Last time we talked you were having a consultation of some 30 people here. I know it was a behind closed doors meeting, but can you share some of the conclusions?

Philpott: Well, it was not behind closed doors in the sense that we had a day-long conversation, and we’re going to have a rapporteurs report that reports the conversation. It’s just that the comments are anonymized, so it’s not telling who said what. But it has the list of participants at the beginning, and then it reports the conversation. And then we had a keynote speech by Helen Alvare, and that was excellent.

So we had the consultation, and I thought it went very well. We had a combination of lawyers, theologians, experts on truth and reconciliation commissions, and I would say five or six survivors, some of whom, towards the beginning of the consultation, spoke about their experience very vividly and very compellingly and so that shaped the tenor of the whole conversation. 

But we very much approached it with an open ended spirit, you know, really to let it go where it would go. One of the big things that came out of it for me was how commonly survivors feel like they haven’t received empathetic, pastoral, heartfelt attention from the Church. Maybe they’ve gotten a reparation settlement. Maybe they got a meeting with the bishop. But many feel like there hasn’t been a lot of heartfelt acknowledgement of their suffering, and what they experienced from the Church. 

A sort of linguistic question: When you say “the Church” do you mean the hierarchy or do you actually mean the whole Church?

No, I mean mostly members of the hierarchy like priests and bishops.

Then my follow up question has to be what can the Church as a whole do to address the crisis, not just the hierarchy, because we know the entire community has to be involved?

Right. I mean, the purpose of the consultation was to look at the lessons of national truth and reconciliation processes. Many, many nation states have looked at the past of dictatorship or war in order to try to build a sustainable peace or democracy. Argentina, for instance. And the truth commission has been a common vehicle sometimes called a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 

The idea is to look at it holistically, to tell the truth about what happened, to do it proactively and definitively. But also to do it in a way that is healing for victims, and for people who have suffered: to acknowledge them, give them empathetic acknowledgement. And not all nations did it well. 

So our idea is: Could there be a forum, such as a truth commission that would give acknowledgement to victims, where they would be able to tell their story and be heard by representatives of the Church and in some way by the whole Church, in a way that would be public.

And, what was the conclusion?

I was kind of surprised that there was a fair bit of sympathy for the idea. And we discussed different aspects of it. There are a lot of questions that would have to be answered: Who would convene such a commission, under whose authority and just the sheer logistics of it are challenging. 

I mean, Canada did a truth commission, and it happened over several years, and the budget was about $70 million. One doesn’t know where the resources would come from. But the idea is that, for the Church to kind of move ahead and restore its credibility as the Church, it could do something where it would act as the body of Christ. First of all, by bringing out the whole truth about sexual abuse. And also provide empathetic acknowledgement for survivors. We think that it would be a very healing thing for a lot of people in the Church.

We’re here at the Fall Conference organized by the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture, where you will be taking part in a panel. What’s your talk about?

I’m talking about the meaning of justice, with a talk titled resurrecting justice, which has two meanings. One is addressing the fact that justice as presented in the Gospel has been forgotten. But it’s also a justice that finds its combination in the cross and resurrection, which is God’s reconciliation and restoration of humanity.

Has the Catholic Church forgotten about justice when it comes to clerical abuse victims?

Well, I think so. The notion of justice that has become dominant in the West is from Roman law, and it is the constant will to render another his due. That’s a notion of justice that is legalistic and is rights based. But that’s kind of what the response has been, you know, reparation settlements determined by courts. The lawyers have kind of taken over the process. 

And that’s been hard for the Church because once there’s a threat of massive lawsuits, the Church has to get into legalistic mode, defend itself, go to court and that sort of thing. But what’s being lost is the justice of restoration, the restorative Healing Justice that God exercised towards humanity through Christ and through the cross and resurrection. And that’s restorative justice, truly designed to restore persons and relationships. 

And that’s what I think has been lost and been short circuited. I think you have a lot of survivors who feel like maybe they got their reparations settlement, maybe they got some legal response, but I think it is widespread that survivors feel like they haven’t received a true pastoral response. Some bishops and priests have provided that, and we have to give credit where credit is due.

Can you actually accomplish both? The legalistic justice that we cannot work around because if not crimes go unpunished?

Yes. And I don’t want to deny that there is a rightful place for legalistic justice. The law has its place and certainly when abusers have committed crimes, then rightfully there’s a place for legal justice. And I understand the logic behind reparation settlements, and so forth. But, I think that the deeper justice of true restoration and healing is what has often been left out.

Anything else I should be asking you about? 

The matter of revelation of truth. The ones who seem to be revealing the truth are the journalists and the attorney generals, such as the one in Pennsylvania, or the one in Nebraska.

We are starting to see some independent national commissions being set up by the Church, as was the case in France, or in Portugal, where the bishops just announced their plan to convene one.

And it is good when the Church is seeking to reveal the truth itself. Now again, though, I think what we need is something more than a report, we need something that involves empathy for survivors. For instance, truth commissions in places like South Africa and Guatemala involved this kind of chance for them to testify and be heard and have their story heard. 

We also had an interesting debate about forgiveness. So some people said that forgiveness is the F word in the eyes of many survivors. But others pointed out that forgiveness is so much a teaching of the Gospel and thought that if people could receive acknowledgement and justice, then maybe they would be more ready to practice forgiveness. 

And one of the things that was also emphasized is that there are 1000 survivors with 1000 stories, and you can’t generalize, because some might be ready to forgive, while others might not. People’s freedom should always be respected.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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