It has been more than a full year since the sex abuse allegations against the former cardinal Theodore McCarrick and the publication of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report set off a shockwave of further abuse accusations and investigations in the Church in the United States and beyond.
It has been 17 years since the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) implemented the Dallas Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which proposed a “zero-tolerance policy” for child abuse in the Catholic Church in the U.S.
It was just this week that a panel of four experts on the abuse crisis gathered at the University of Notre Dame to discuss the question: “Where are we now?” and to propose ways for the Church to continue moving forward.
Panelists at the Sept. 25 event included Juan Carlos Cruz, an abuse survivor and advocate from Chile whose complaints were initially dismissed by Pope Francis (though were later accepted with an apology from the pope); Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore; Kathleen McChesney, a former FBI executive assistant director who helped the USCCB implement the 2002 Dallas Charter; and Peter Steinfels a long-time journalist for Commonweal who wrote a lengthy review of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report on the sex abuse crisis. John Allen Jr., editor of Crux, moderated the panel.
While much has improved regarding the clerical sex abuse crisis in the U.S. since 2002, the panelists gave a resounding response that even one case of abuse occurring in the Church is too many, and that a change of hearts and attitudes, and not just of policies, is needed for the Church to progress and for victims to heal.
“The one thing that I am certain about is that most of us, myself very much included, know much less about this painful, stomach-churning scandal than we think we know,” Steinfels said.
Steinfels noted that since 2002, the Church in the U.S. made significant progress in the abuse crisis, reducing the number of cases of sexual abuse from about 600 per year in the 1950s-1970s down to roughly 20 or fewer cases per year, post-Dallas Charter.
“Anyone who obscures this dramatic drop in Catholic clergy abuse, as I think the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report did, is not telling the truth,” he noted.
But that is still not enough, Steinfels added, because “one case is one too many,” and these statistics of success “can blind us to the excruciating, life-derailing devastation caused by a single case of abuse.”
He also predicted that news of Church sexual abuse was not going anywhere anytime soon, because “the abuse scandal has gone global. More than 120 million children sexually abused worldwide - it is woeful that even a small fraction has touched the Church.”
Even though the bulk of the abuse crisis in the U.S. occurred decades ago, Steinfels said, there are still victims coming forward who were afraid to share their stories until now, and whose experiences of pain and betrayal “are like landmines left buried in the ground after the war.”
In one suggestion for a way forward, Steinfels encouraged Catholic universities like Notre Dame to compile the history of the sex abuse crisis, from which others could learn.
“A genuine history will require archives, oral history interviews, and study of scandal’s religious, cultural, and economic context,” he said.
“It has been said that we walk backwards into the future looking at our past. A genuine history is needed for our future.”
In his remarks, Cruz said that he would leave the statistics to the experts and speak from the heart. While Cruz’ story of abuse at the hands of his parish priest in Chile was initially dismissed by Pope Francis, the Holy Father later apologized to Cruz and other victims for being “part of the problem” in May 2018.
Cruz told the panel audience that what sustained him through the pain of his experience of abuse was his Catholic faith.
“I decided early on that I wasn’t going to let them win. I wasn’t going to let the bad ones win,” he said. “I believe that the relationship anyone has with God...it’s the most basic human right that one can have, is to believe in what you believe, and nobody can mess with it. And I wasn’t going to let them mess with that.”
In a word of encouragement to abuse survivors, Cruz said that while it is hard to come forward with a story of abuse, there are people who can help.
“There are so many people who want to lend you a hand, to help you through that horrible pain,” he said.
Cruz said that he was encouraged by Pope Francis’ apology and willingness to listen to his story and those of other abuse survivors, but that he was discouraged by the attitudes of some bishops who promise to improve but who continue to cover up and mishandle cases of abuse.
“Pope Francis wants to solve the problem, I’ve talked to him and know he’s sincere,” he said. “However, the bishops go, talk to him, say, ‘absolutely Pope Francis,’ they bow, they kiss his ring, go back to their countries and do the same thing they’ve been doing...nobody holds them accountable and that needs to stop.”
In her remarks, McChesney also called for a change of heart and attitude among the bishops.
“When I first worked for the USCCB, the Dallas Charter was new, we were excited about implementing it, and I talked with many survivors,” she noted. “And one man said: ‘Look, you can have all the programs in the world you want, you can have policies, you can have trainings, you can have background checks and investigations, you can do all of those things, but until the bishops realize that there has to be a true accountability, I and my fellow survivors are not going to heal.’”
“It is so critical for the men and women who have been abused to know that someone is taking responsibility for what has happened to them,” McChesney said.
There has also been a lot of talk about the rethinking of seminary formation in the wake of the abuse crisis, McChesney said, with suggestions to really emphasize the human formation aspect of seminary formation.
But this “puts the cart before the horse,” she argued.
“In my experience, I think that selection is more important than formation...you can have the best formation programs, the best seminaries in the entire world, but if you have selected the wrong person to go into seminary, someone who is so troubled, who doesn’t know what they want to do, has mental health issues...that person is never going to become a healthy cleric. So to have a healthy presbyterate, you need to start with healthy men,” McChesney said.
She also credited lay men and women, as well as some dedicated clergy, with working on the ground levels to bring the abuse numbers down since the Dallas Charter was established and who continue to work with and pressure bishops into doing more.
Because there have been so few cases since the 2002 Charter, McChesney added, it is all the more urgent to thoroughly investigate the cases of abuse that have occurred since then, and to ask how and why they happened.
“There are not as many cases - but there have been cases. Why? Who missed that lesson and why? And where was the oversight of those persons who abused?” she said.
Finally, she added, the Church must fight against issue fatigue and complacency when it comes to the sex abuse crisis.
“We can’t let our tiredness, our sadness, overtake our passion for continuing to work on these issues,” she said.
Archbishop Lori, once a member of the USCCB’s Committee on Sexual Abuse, noted that he was speaking only for himself and not all bishops. Lori said that for him, learning how to really listen to victims of the sex abuse crisis has been one of the “steepest learning curves” in the handling of the sex abuse crisis.
It may be the instinct of a bishop to offer a victim the help and support of the Church, Lori said, but survivors of abuse do not always want that. He had to learn how to really listen and realize that “I as the bishop listening to this cannot fully appreciate the nature of the experience that’s being described to me.”
He had to learn to not try to “be the person that has the answer, not try to be the person who pushes or who offers something that might not be wanted by the victim-survivor in that moment, the victim-survivor has to be in the driver's seat. It’s not just a question of meeting them or of affirming, it’s a question of listening deeply, and believing them.”
Adding to the chorus of previous comments that “one case is too many,” Lori also echoed the other panelists’ call for conversion among the bishops and other Church clergy and officials.
“The need remains and will always remain not to see the charter, these norms...simply as policies to be complied with,” Lori said. “In the grace of the Holy Spirit, there’s really got to be, on the part of people like me, my co-workers, lay co-workers, a conversion of mind and heart.”
Protecting children and listening to and helping victims of clerical abuse must be “as much as part of the life of the Church...as evangelization, Catholic education, or raising up vocations,” he added.
“We’ve got to continue being held accountable, because the Church’s mission depends on it.”
During the discussion, most panelists also noted that the abuse crisis has in some cases been “weaponized” by both conservative and liberal camps within the Church to push certain other agendas.
This is “a shameful use of what has happened to these men and women,” McChesney remarked.
During a question-and-answer session, Lori added that part of the ongoing solution to the abuse crisis is bringing more lay professional voices to the decision table.
“I need the help of qualified, committed laypersons who have expertise that I'll never have,” Lori said. “Who’s sitting around the decision table?...that affects Church governance and how we look at this.”
Cruz also called for more young people and more laity, particularly women, to be involved in the decisions and solutions to the abuse crisis.
“We need more women in the Church that are trained, that are prepared, to break this men’s club, to bring all their talent and their training to help us heal,” he said. “We can’t have women in the sacristy, we have to have them front and center in the Church, and we can’t wait for bishops to finish their learning curve, survivors need us now.”
Cruz added that he gets frustrated when he hears bishops or other clergy say that prior to the Dallas Charter and other protocols, they did not know how to act or handle cases of abuse.
“I want to tell them: raping a child has always been wrong - before Christ, after Christ, in the Middle Ages...and it always will be wrong. So you better learn.”