Panel at Notre Dame Says Church Is Addressing Abuse Crisis, But More Must Be Done

Tags: Currents Catholic, Catholic Church, Media, Pope Francis

By Christopher White, The Tablet’s National Correspondent

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Some of the leading figures in the American Catholic Church responsible for the response to the clerical sex abuse convened on the campus of the University of Notre Dame on Sept. 25 with a consensus that while the church has been slow to reform, change is underway.

The event was an initiative of Notre Dame President Father John Jenkins, C.S.C., who opened the forum by summoning the famous words of St. Francis of Assisi, “rebuild my church,” as inspiration for the event dubbed “The Church Crisis: Where are we now?”

John Allen, editor of Crux, served as the moderator for the evening, 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 (W.Va.); and Peter Steinfels, a longtime 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 often-cited statistics, noting that between 1950-2002, 4-5 percent of the American Catholic clergy abused more than 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.

But he argued that those statistics can be “dangerous,” because of the “excruciating, life-derailing devastation caused by a single case of abuse” — and yet Steinfels went on to ask that if America experienced a similar drop in its gun violence rates or an abatement of the opioid crisis, “would we pretend that nothing significant had happened?”

In January, Steinfels penned a 12,000-word critical essay in Commonwealmagazine, scrutinizing the 2018 Pennsylvania grand jury report that chronicled seven decades of abuse in the state, which he said obscured that reality and was guilty of “not telling the truth.”

[RELATED: Notre Dame Releases Study on Sexual Harassment Among U.S. Seminarians]

Steinfels offered five reasons why despite the “drastically reduced” number of incidents of abuse that 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 alike; the American civil war over Pope Francis; state and federal investigations that lead to a “drip, drip, drip of sensational headlines”; and the suffering and pain of victim survivors who 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 Pope Francis’ 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 Pope Francis could solve the abuse crisis with a “stroke of a pen,” Cruz faulted that 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 Pope Francis to resign over the crisis, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, and American Cardinal Raymond Burke, who has challenged a number of Pope Francis’ reform efforts — for “weaponing survivors” to hurt Pope Francis.

“They’ll drop victims as soon as they pass their agenda,” Cruz charged.

Cruz later went on to note that he continues to have frank conversations with Pope Francis over 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 frontlines working alongside victims for two decades, pointed to Cruz’s courage as an example to other victim-survivors to ensure that they know that many people are 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-fit- 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 that 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 show 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 word economy,” she warned.

Archbishop 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.

While he noted that the bishops’ 2002 Dallas 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 in June, noting that “none of these things solve the problem, they only set the direction.”

Archbishop Lori also spoke of his own experience of investigating allegations of sexual misconduct and financial corruption of Bishop 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 didn’t do the job perfectly — Archbishop Lori has come under criticism for initially failing to disclose to the Vatican that he was a former recipient of financial contributions from Bishop Bransfield — he said that the process was “rough, bumpy, rocky,” but 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, Archbishop Lori said the most important step the church can take is to have independent reporting of abuse cases against bishops that it “out of the control” of the bishops and that laypeople 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 the names of credibly accused priests, noting that the lists must be comprehensive and accurate, and must also include the past assignments of accused priests.

While each of the panelists differed in their own degree of the 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 led by laypeople 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,” Archbishop 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.”

NET-TV will be airing the University of Notre Dame’s forum — The Church Crisis: Where are We Now? — on September 30, 2019 at 7:30pm, following Currents News.