What Catholic universities are doing to address the sex abuse crisis

Washington D.C., Mar 15, 2019 / 03:01 am (CNA).- Late last summer, as accusations of abuse against then-cardinal Theodore McCarrick surfaced, a grand jury report from Pennsylvania detailed decades and hundreds of cases of clerical abuse, and dioceses began listing their priests accused of sexual abuse, lay Catholics horrified by the news grasped for something they could do.

Some started letter-writing campaigns, prayer campaigns or petitions. Others launched anonymous watchdog websites. A social media campaign with the hashtag #SackClothandAshes encouraged the laity to offer fasting and sacrifices for the sins of the clergy.

Now, several Catholic universities have announced how they’re joining in the reform efforts.

The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. recently announced the launch of ‘The Catholic Project’, an initiative aimed at bringing healing and reform to the Church after the sex abuse crisis.

Leaders at the university have said that as the pontifical university in the U.S., CUA is uniquely situated to respond to the crisis in a number of ways.

“CUA has a unique place in the American Catholic landscape, being sort of the bishop’s university that has a special relationship with the Vatican, but it’s also a lay-led institution,” Stephen White, who was named executive director of the project, told CNA.

It also makes sense geographically for CUA to respond to the crisis, White said, since it sits across the street from headquarters of the U.S. bishop’s conference and is in Washington, D.C., the same city where the now-laicized McCarrick had previously served as cardinal and archbishop.

Furthermore, White said, CUA has a host of invaluable resources at its fingertips.

“(CUA) has all of these assets at its disposal – a law school, a canon law faculty (the only one in the country), theologians, social workers who’ve been working on these questions for decades now,” White said. “It’s sort of a perfect place for a response to the crisis.”

But what form will that response take? There are many, White said.

“It’s sort of an all-of-the-above approach which is sort of why the name of this project came to be ‘The Catholic Project,’” White said.
“We came to realize that there were so many aspects to this and so many things the University can do, that we chose a broader, more generic name.”

Some of those aspects of response began before The Catholic Project existed, such as listening sessions the university hosted with students, a forum where students could vent their frustrations and fears about the crisis. It included a panel discussion “Church in Crisis” series, which included panel discussions about the crisis.

One of the upcoming initiatives of the project will be a collaboration with the USCCB, which will bring bishops together with abuse victims who want to share their story and help the Church heal.

“(They) understand that the Church needs bishops, and they understand that if the Church is going to heal from this, and move forward from this, that the bishops need to understand the survivor’s perspective and that survivors have something to give to heal the Church, even though they are the ones who are least responsible for where we are,” White said.

The project will also be promoting research into sociological questions surrounding the crisis, White said, such as: “What was it that made the abuse spike like it did in the middle of the 20th century? Why did that happen? Was this unique to the Catholic Church or were there other institutions who saw similar spikes? Has the Dallas Charter (the bishop’s previous abuse prevention plan) worked? And if it has worked, what parts of it have worked? Are there parts that have been implemented but that didn’t really make much of a difference, or parts that worked, and what are those parts?”

Another part of the project will work with the business school to come up with ways to help priests and bishops be better managers of their parishes and dioceses.

“When you have an organization that’s run transparently and efficiently and well, you’re less likely to have parts of the organization where bad things can fester,” White said.

“So there’s lots of different components to (the project),” he added.

White also recognized that academic work and research are not going to solve completely the problem.

“But it’s important, and the work that’s going to have to be done in chanceries, and parishes, and bishop’s conferences, is work that can be helped by the things that we’re going to be doing at CUA,” he said.

Other Catholic universities and colleges are responding in similarly strong and broad ways.

Fordham University in New York recently announced a lecture titled “Reckoning and Reform: New Horizons on the Clergy Abuse Crisis” as a part of their ongoing response to the abuse crisis.

David Gibson, director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University, told CNA that the event will be a two-part presentation aimed at helping people understand the crisis and what can be done moving forward.

“People are upset and understandably just aghast at what is going on, but in order to find some solutions we have to figure out what has happened,” Gibson told CNA.

Gibson said that by hosting the event in the late afternoon and evening, he hoped to catch some “Catholic regular working folks who are vitally interested in this kind of thing and they can attend,” he said.

“Academic conferences are good and a lot of people are doing those kinds of things, but I think it’s also really important that we do things that can get regular Catholics coming to attend them and to get informed on these kind of things so it’s not just ‘professional Catholics’,” he said.

Gibson added that Catholic universities and colleges will be “indispensable” in the response to the sex abuse reform, for several reasons: because of their vast array of resources, because, as lay institutions, they now have more credibility with many Catholics than the bishops, and because they are positioned all throughout the country, where they can reach many people.

Another prominent Catholic institution of higher education, the University of Notre Dame, recently published a statement outlining the ways that university has and will continue to address the abuse crisis.

Father John Jenkins, C.S.C., president of Notre Dame, noted in the statement that in October 2018 the university created two task forces to being the work of reform: a Campus Engagement Task Force, which “was charged with facilitating dialogue and listening to the observations and recommendations of our campus community,” and the Research and Scholarship Task Force, which “considered ways in which Notre Dame might respond and assist the Church in this crisis through its research and scholarship.”

He then outlined both the immediate and ongoing steps the university will take to address the crisis, as informed by the task forces.

As for immediate steps, Jenkins said the university will “initiate prominent, public events to educate and stimulate discussion.” The focus of the first event will be “where the Church is now, identifying steps that have been taken and problems that must be addressed.”

The second event “will focus not only on the issue of sexual abuse, considered narrowly, but also on the broader questions the current crisis raises, such as structures of accountability in the Church, clericalism, the role of women, creating and sustaining ethical cultures, and the continued accompaniment of survivors.”

The university will also be making research grants available “across a wide range of disciplines that will address issues raised by the current situation. In accord with this recommendation, the President’s Office will provide up to $1 million in the next three years to fund research projects that address issues emerging from the crisis.”

For ongoing efforts to address sex abuse in the Church, the university will continue to “encourage and share relevant research and scholarship … with the goal of producing recommendations for ensuring that seminaries and houses of religious formation are safe environments free from sexual harassment.”

It will also “train graduates for effective leadership in the Church during and beyond the crisis,” through graduate programs in theology, teacher and leadership formation programs, and catechist training programs, which are all “committed to training ministers and teachers to be aware of issues of sexual abuse and policies and behaviors needed to prevent it.”

Jenkins also noted that university will “redouble” its efforts in preventing and addressing cases of sexual assault that occur on Notre Dame’s campus.

“As I join others in praying for survivors, I will do what I can to prevent these terrible offenses. I encourage everyone, each in their own respective positions and roles, to contribute to real and lasting change that will prevent sexual assault and abuse, in the Church and outside it, and to support survivors,” Jenkins noted.

“To the extent we can do this, the dark night of the current crisis will lead us to a hopeful dawn.”

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