The University of Notre Dame is proud of its Catholic mission, and the ways in which that mission enhances its education and scholarly efforts and enriches our University community. Yet the recent Pennsylvania grand jury report about six Catholic dioceses, as well as other reports in the news, have been a cause not of pride, but of sadness, anger and shame. We are unspeakably sad at the damage done to the lives of so many victims and angry at those who betrayed a sacred trust. We are ashamed that institutions dedicated to drawing people to holiness, educating the young and defending the dignity of all should be places where some of its ministers corrupted people, exploited the young and so violated their dignity. I share the anguish of many.
In recent weeks I have spoken to a number of people and reflected on how Notre Dame might respond, and I write to share our thoughts and plans. We must look at Notre Dame’s own history, actions and policies and also look for ways in which it can assist the Church. We will not single-handedly solve problems, but we can contribute to understanding, healing and constructive change.
Abuse of Minors
The gravest offenses are those against minors, those under 18 years old. Abuse may occur in other contexts, but the violation of innocent children by Catholic clergy is most heinous, for these men were given a sacred trust of being ministers of God’s care and love to young people. In abusing those in their care, they not only cause serious psychological damage, but can steal the sense of the sacred from the child.
While abuse was prevalent in past decades in the six Pennsylvania dioceses that were the subject of the grand jury report, two of the estimated one thousand cases reported and dealt with occurred after more stringent policies were put in place in 2002. Nothing can change the damage that transpired, and even one case is too many, but the reduction in cases indicates that it is possible to take concrete steps that will dramatically reduce the instances of abuse.
At Notre Dame, although our students are nearly all adults when they arrive, we do house minors for some periods in the summer and the course of the school year. The University has had a strong policy protecting minors, which can be found here. I encourage everyone to be aware of our Policy for the Protection of Minors and to report any concerns immediately.
Abuse of Adults
More relevant to us at Notre Dame are situations in which those with authority — whether priests, teachers, rectors or others — can use asymmetrical power relationships to exploit and abuse students who are not minors. We have had incidents at Notre Dame that involved this kind of abuse. In 2002, the University publicly invited anyone who had experienced abuse to come forward and receive support. Some did, and the University publicly apologized. I now renew that invitation to anyone who was abused to come forward and let us know.
As I said in my Address to the Faculty and in the Staff Town Halls in the fall, it is important for those who are exploited or harassed to make a report so that we can investigate professionally and respond appropriately. I pledge that we will do all we can to respond to such reports.
Priests and Religious on Campus
Most Holy Cross priests and brothers on campus are members of the U.S. Province of Holy Cross, which has established rigorous standards for the screening and education of seminarians, and for responding to reports of suspected abuse. The Province has an external review board composed primarily of laypersons that examines all such cases. The Province’s policies and practices in this area are audited by Praesidium, an external auditing agency specializing in this area, to ensure alignment with best practices.
All priests and religious who work at Notre Dame, whether Holy Cross or not, must undergo the same hiring processes as other faculty and staff including relevant background checks.
Assisting the Church
Pope Francis is convening a special meeting in February of heads of bishops’ conferences around the world to discuss possible steps. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops announced recently the creation of a third-party procedure for reporting misconduct by bishops and members of the Church hierarchy.
The full response to the current crisis must include, as Pope Francis wrote, “an emphatic ‘no’ to all forms of clericalism,” and the “active participation of all the members of God’s People.” Each of us is called to assist the Church and to take whatever steps we can to heal all who have been damaged by this tragedy. We at Notre Dame must look for ways to respond to this call.
To help channel our efforts, I have established two task forces. The first will be a Campus Engagement Task Force, whose charge will be to facilitate dialogue and to listen to the observations, thoughts and recommendations of our campus community. It will summarize these for me, and we will look for ways to direct these in constructive ways. I have asked Jennifer Mason McAward, associate professor of law and director of the Klau Center for Civil and Human Rights, and Rev. Gerry Olinger, C.S.C., the vice president for mission engagement and Church affairs, to co-chair this task force.
As a university, we possess scholarly and research expertise. I have established a Research and Scholarship Task Force to consider the ways in which Notre Dame scholarly and research expertise might serve the Church at this time. This Research and Scholarship Task Force will assess the current situation, survey initiatives currently underway at Notre Dame and elsewhere, and recommend any further steps we might take to address the current crisis. I have asked Ann Tenbrunsel, the David E. Gallo Professor of Business Ethics, and Kathleen Sprows Cummings, the William W. and Anna Jean Cushwa Director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism and associate professor in the Department of American Studies and Department of History, to co-chair this second task force.
I am grateful to our colleagues who will lead these task forces. We will follow up with further communication about the work of each of these task forces.
Testing our Faith
One of the pernicious effects of the current crisis is that, for us who are Catholics, it can shake our faith, undermine our hope and dampen our love. We can experience the darkness of Good Friday, when Jesus’ death seemed to take away the promise of the Gospel.
The Church has of course always been a mixture of sin and sanctity, of hypocrisy and heroic witness. Such a mixture is apparent to anyone who studies the history of the Church and to those who have lived in it. The lives of the saints inspire us, but the actions of sinners can be a stumbling block. Faced with the current crisis, we can be tempted to think that sin and hypocrisy is all there is. To the extent we think that, we may ask why we stay in such a flawed Church.
We who share a faith in Jesus Christ recognize, though, that the virtue of saints is not in itself a sufficient reason for staying in the Church, and the vice of sinners is not a sufficient reason for leaving it. The true treasure is the mystery of salvation offered by Jesus Christ, and the Church is the sign and instrument of that saving mystery. Through it Christ is proclaimed, and through its sacraments we are strengthened in our journey to holiness. “We have this treasure,” writes St. Paul, “in earthen vessels” — we have it in a human, sinful Church.
The lives of the saints through the ages, and of those hidden saints in our midst, are witnesses to the mystery of Christ. They turn our gaze to Christ. Yet sin too can serve to remind us that our true hope is not in human achievement, but in Christ. By striving to live more loving and holy lives, by combating evil and injustice, we make the Church a vessel that better witnesses to the treasure it holds. To the extent we do this, all of us — lay, religious and ordained — can be part of making the Church more fully what it is called to be.
“The cross is our only hope,” says the motto of Holy Cross. The current crisis is a cross, but if we carry it faithfully, it will become our hope. Let us pray for the grace to do so.