Faithful to Mission and Truthful in Response

By Katarina Schuth, O.S.F.

Editor Note: When the National Seminar met at Canisius College in mid September, we already had in hand all the articles commissioned for this Mission Impossible? issue. But we quickly realized we needed to address the breaking news arising from the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report (Aug 14, 2018) and the scandalous advancement during the time of Pope John Paul II of Theodore McCarrick, as bishop, then archbishop of Washington, and finally cardinal. We are most grateful to Sister Katarina Schuth, O.S.F., emerita, St. Thomas University seminary, and Dr. Linda LeMura, president of Le Moyne College, for addressing the sexual abuse crisis, the cover-up by the majority of bishops, and the related issues of the abuse of power and closed world of clericalism. Once asked, they both submit these articles within two weeks.

When an issue is as painful and tragic as the sexual abuse situation in the Catholic Church, what constitutes a reasonable and honest way to communicate with those who are part of our higher education institutions?

On the many occasions I have spoken about clergy abuse of children and young people, it distresses me to discover how lacking in information and how misinformed many people are because of inadequate communication about the situation. The deficit ranges from defensiveness and lack of acceptance of the fact that abuse exists at all to the exaggerated and untrue belief that a large percentage of priests are abusers and the church has done nothing about the problem. Particularly because of recent disclosures, the challenges are magnified and old concerns seem new again.

Institutions of Catholic higher education are in a position to provide leadership as appropriate and necessary in their locations and beyond, through several layers of response. They can reach students, faculty, and staff, as well as board members and other external communities, particularly those who have a relationship to the institution. Since the president of each institution is in a unique position to have an impact on a large number of people, a general statement to the whole community should express condemnation of the abuse and regret that it has occurred. Following that action, constituents in each category should expect pertinent information about the situation to follow.

After many years of interaction with students, my instinct is first to assess the intended audience. Some institutions strongly emphasize Catholic identity, and students in those institutions are likely to be acutely aware of and troubled by the reports of sexual abuse in the church. They may expect a more complete report than students who are less aware of the connection with Catholicism. In either case, offices for mission, campus ministry, and other student service departments should communicate with students by offering times for listening sessions and individual counseling or conversations. These leaders would need to determine the content of the communication with the composition of their audience in mind, be they at the undergraduate or graduate level. In any case, institutional leaders should promise that they will make every effort to ensure a safe environment and encourage students to report any behavior that threatens their well-being.

Administrators may need to provide additional specific information to faculty and staff about clergy sexual abuse, including the reasons for its intense reappearance in the press and in wider society in recent months. The content of such a briefing is difficult to determine for several reasons. Some faculty and staff have considerable background information and understanding while others are somewhat baffled by the regenerated attention to the issue. Difficulty in determining how and what to communicate relates not only to differences in the backgrounds of faculty and staff but also to how the public may perceive the communication. To relate the history of the situation without appearing defensive by mentioning the reduced number of recent abuse cases, on one hand, or despairing of the possibility of making changes, on the other hand, requires careful consideration.

An exceedingly condensed history of clerical sexual abuse of children and young people in the United States illustrates the problem. The four rather distinct phases that I distinguish are as follows:

  1. Phase One: 1950 to mid-1980s – the move is from almost no recognition of clergy sexual abuse by the hierarchy to minimal acknowledgement; fewer than 100 cases were reported publicly and other cases were not known at all.

  2. Phase Two: 1985 to 2002 – awareness of the problem increased, with 1992 being a turning point when the USCCB issued the “Five Principles” for dealing with sexual abuse; this period culminated with the revelations in the Boston Globe that led to an acute understanding by the bishops and others that clergy sexual abuse was a major crisis.

  3. Phase Three: 2002 to June 2018 – the bishops took extensive actions, including the promulgation of “The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” with “Essential Norms” for dealing with sexual abuse of minors by priests and deacons (known as “The Dallas Charter”). These actions led to a tremendous drop in new abuse cases. Since 2004, the average number of new cases among diocesan priests has been fewer than nineteen per year, and among religious order priests, two per year. Those numbers stand in sharp contrast to an average of at least 500 per year from about 1960 through 2002.

  4. Phase Four: June 2018 to the present – the focus shifted from priests to bishops, related to the history of extensive abuse by former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and the report of the Pennsylvania grand jury. The widespread negative reactions were based in part on what was recognized as insufficient accountability, serious ineptitude, and sometimes even malfeasance among bishops.

The difficulty in determining what information to promulgate can be gleaned from this abbreviated history. In light of the negative response to bishops, it may seem gratuitous to report on the interventions by the USCCB in the early 2000s that resulted in a drastic reduction in the number of new clergy abuse cases. Two factors contributing to the decrease were requirements for extensive background checks on all those who work with children and young people and the instruction to young people on to how identify and report behaviors that they believed were inappropriate. Yet to mention those facts could be interpreted as defensive and objectionable. At the same time, failure to report the improvement could lead others to give up hope that the church will ever overcome the problem.

Jesuit higher education institutions can play several roles even as they remain faithful to their mission and truthful in their responses. Those who have voice in these institutions are in a position to prepare models of how to communicate with students, faculty, staff, and external audiences. Different types of institutions can propose a variety of case studies or sets of recommendations that include many angles of the sexual abuse problems in the church, such as the history, present status, and ongoing developments. Beyond that, everyone can be encouraged to pray for and act in a way that will change hearts and behaviors and raise awareness that lead to greater protection of children and young people. Some might be able to construct prayers of petition and prayers to begin and end church-related meetings that seek God’s help in preventing sexual abuse. Others might prepare content for presentations to adult education sessions. Groups of leaders in these institutions can meet to discuss other ways of addressing the problem specific to their circumstances. Ultimately, we are each responsible for discovering and creating pathways to a safe environment and a church that stands for moral responsibility at every level.

Sister Katarina Schuth, O.S.F., has taught at the College of St. Teresa, the Weston School of Theology, and the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity of the University of St. Thomas.