In an effort to respond to the clerical sexual abuse crisis, The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., held a four-part series of conferences titled “Healing the Breach of Trust,” concluding with an April 25 conference exploring the role of the laity in addressing the crisis in the Church.

In the midst of this conference series, Catholic University also launched “The Catholic Project,” an initiative that brings together laity and clergy to collaborate in renewing and building up the Church, with the main objectives of preventing abuse, addressing the needs of victims and survivors, and promoting a better understanding of the crisis and of Catholic theology.  

Introducing the theme for the final conference, Stephen White, the executive director of The Catholic Project, reflected on how the harm of abuse is felt “most acutely by those who have been abused,” but that the hurt also “radiates outward” to the families of the survivors and eventually to the entire Church. White also encouraged everyone to remember that ultimately, it is only through God that the Church can be fixed.

“We cannot fix the Church by our own efforts, but we can perhaps, like Simon of Cyrene, do our part to carry a small bit of the weight,” he said.

Following White’s introduction, Detroit Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron spoke about some of his experiences collaborating with the laity in his archdiocese, which included forming what he called “The Group,” a set of clergy and laity who brought different competencies to the table in an effort to respond to the crisis locally.

Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron (Photo/Deirdre McQuade)

In addition to official groups of laity, the archbishop said he appreciates ordinary parishioners who have offered their counsel about actions they believe need to be taken in response to the crisis.

“I am indebted to their praying,” he said. “Without that we would not have had the virtue to act well.”

Archbishop Vigneron explained that with the counsel of the laity, it is ultimately the bishop who is responsible for making decisions about how to promote healing in the diocese that has been entrusted to him. The role of bishop is to oversee the web of ecclesial acts in his local Church that lead to the salvation of souls, and “it is the job of the bishop to be the trustee of this common good and to ensure that any ecclesial acts, including those of healing, contribute to this end,” he said.

He acknowledged how “often, in our democratic society, the worth of voices that enter into deliberation without power to determine how best to bring those to a conclusion are depreciated to being powerless,” but said in his experience, “voices that offer insight that helps form the final judgment about what ought to be done are very powerful.”

The second panel of the day brought together Jonathan Reyes, the assistant general secretary for Integral Human Development at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Teresa Sullivan, the president emerita of the University of Virginia, to discuss organizational perspectives of what the laity can do.

Reyes said he believes there are some pre-conditions to answering the question “What can the laity can do?” including intellectual formation of the laity. He particularly believes it is important to help them recognize that the Church is not something outside of themselves, but rather something they are included in.

Jonathan Reyes (Photo/Deirdre McQuade)

Another pre-condition to answering the question well, Reyes said, is the de-polarization of the conversation surrounding the abuse crisis.

“A longer, more patient and de-politicized conversation that considers multiple answers can get us closer to more comprehensive and effective solutions,” he said, encouraging everyone not to dismiss any suggested factors of the crisis out of hand.

Finally, he suggested that it is important to form “helpful spiritual and moral dispositions,” such as the knowledge that “the work of reform is done by God’s grace…He is the reformer; we cooperate with Him.”

Sullivan discussed the crisis from a sociological perspective, noting what she believed to be some of the framing principles of the current crisis, including the issue of consent.

The reason why the abuse of a minor is criminal in all states is that children are not able to consent to any sexual activity, Sullivan said, suggesting that other people are also unable to consent, such as church employees or seminarians who may feel their future is jeopardized if they say no to someone in the hierarchy of the Church. Furthermore, she said it is possible that no lay Catholic can truly give consent if they feel that they are bound to whatever their priest says.

Sullivan also discussed the “historicity” of the abuse crisis, noting that abuse is not limited to the United States or to the last century. But at the same time, “I would reject the idea that it happens everywhere, so we don’t have to be particularly concerned about the Church,” she said.

Teresa Sullivan (Photo/Deirdre McQuade)

“It is true that it happens everywhere, but Americans are sensitive to hypocrisy, and the Church is seen as peculiarly culpable because it annunciates principles about legitimate and moral sexual behavior,” she said.

Another thing that makes the Church different, she said, is the belief in the forgiveness of sins.

“How do we reconcile the belief in forgiveness with the institutional responsibility of the Church?” she asked.

Sullivan also emphasized the importance of communicating to the lay faithful what has changed in the Church after the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People in 2002 – most significantly what has changed in seminary formation and in the training of lay volunteers. Though there have been much fewer reported cases of abuse since that date, “many laity are only dimly aware of these changes,” she said.

Other important things for the Church to communicate to the laity, she said, are the meaning of “zero tolerance policy” and a greater transparency about the financial aspects of the crisis.

“It is too late to worry about the Church’s reputation or whether the laity will get scandalized,” she said. “It is time to take counsel about what is the morally right thing to do.”

The third panel included two survivors of clerical sexual abuse who now work for healing in the Church: John Carr, the founder and director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, and Teresa Pitt Green, an abuse survivor who founded Spirit Fire – an organization that promotes Christ-centered restorative justice for adults, families and faith communities wounded by child abuse.

When Carr was 14 years old, he went to a high school seminary in Minnesota, where he was harassed and abused, but for many years he didn’t tell anybody about it. Fifty years after the abuse happened, he sent a letter to the community asking for an apology and got one.

Carr formerly served as the secretary for social concerns in the Archdiocese of Washington, and said he remembered a time when Cardinal James Hickey, then the archbishop of Washington, asked him and a group of priests for input on what to do when a senior cleric was accused of abuse. He observed that the clergy “looked at it through the eyes of brother priests,” while he saw it as “about the worst thing I could imagine for my child.”

Carr told Cardinal Hickey that he thought he should remove the priest, which he did, despite the recommendations of the priests not to. Carr said through that experience he learned the importance of having more parents in the room when those decisions are made.

With his belief in the importance of lay participation, Carr said he also believed the Church needs to be careful not to replace the “clerical elite” with the “lay elite,” and to be intentional about involving the voices of all Catholics – not just big donors or management experts.

“Lay people who are going to be involved need to be independent and focused on needs of vulnerable, not the protection of the institution or the care of the perpetrator,” he said.

Finally, Carr reminded everyone that “we are more than our failures,” noting that because of the Catholic Church, about a thousand people would find shelter that night, thousands of young people would get a great education, and tens of thousands of people would gather to worship on Sunday.

Green, who went through several instances of abuse, said she has had hundreds of hours of therapy time learning to cope with the affects of the abuse, which include many health issues.

“Child sexual abuse is violence; it is dominance; it is a murder of a personality that I’ll never know I had,” she said.

But through all of the difficulty, she said what brought her back to the Church was the Eucharist.

“We are wounded in relationship and we are gong to heal in relationship,” she said. “There is not going to be healing in the Church without survivors coming back to the family.”

Green said she and the survivors that she works with “believe that abusers should be cared for.” She wants there to be boundaries around the abuser and doesn’t want anyone to lie about them, but “I am not denying them mercy,” she said.

Green encouraged everyone to be mindful of the fact that when they are discussing the abuse crisis, “the chances are a survivor of abuse is overhearing you.”

She advised anyone who encounters a survivor of sexual abuse to listen to them, to ask if they are safe, and to find a way to tell them about their dignity. Both Green and Carr asked people not to use the experience of survivors to score political points.

The final panel of the day included George Weigel, the distinguished senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, and John Garvey, the president of Catholic University.

George Weigel, at left, speaks at the conclusion of the Healing the Breach of Trust conference. (Photo/Deirdre McQuade)

In opening his address, Weigel said, “all authentic Catholic reform is a matter of re-form – recovering and cleansing some part of that form of the Church which was given to the Church by its Lord.” Part of that “form” is episcopal leadership, Weigel said, also noting, “episcopal authority and lay collaboration is not a zero-sum game.”

Because of that, he said he believed the laity must collaborate both in holding bishops accountable for their actions and also in the selection of candidates for the episcopate. That relationship between the laity and the episcopate, he said, should be “nurtured by prayer and penance, which need to be undertaken together.”

Like Carr, Weigel encouraged keeping a balanced view of the contemporary Catholic reality in America, which includes seminaries being more full than they have been in decades. He said he has been dealing with the abuse crisis for the past 17 years, and has never seen “more settled determination from a critical mass of U.S. bishops to deal with this than I have experienced over the past nine months.”

Weigel also emphasized that it is important for lay people to have a “healthy skepticism” of the way the media reports on issues of abuse, and suggested that the bishops could establish a lay body of retired jurists to review any future grand jury reports as they come out, without any editing of bishops, to provide the Church with an assessment of the credibility of the reports.

Weigel said it is important to recognize how a culture of dissent from Church teaching could be related to the abuse, and though it doesn’t explain everything, he thinks there has to be a correlation between “the meltdown of doctrinal and moral doctrine” in the Church in the 1960s-80s and the spike in abusive behavior during that time.

Finally, Weigel said the way forward “requires us to think of mission territory and mission in a new way.”

“Mission territory is everywhere,” he said.  “…What should I do? Bring someone into or back to the Church.”

To conclude the conference, Garvey spoke about how the clergy sexual abuse crisis damaged the credibility of bishops, and the work of restoring that trust cannot fall entirely on bishops, but rather “requires the work of all the faithful.”

Garvey highlighted just a few areas in which the role of the laity can be expanded, beginning with the family, because that is where every priest learns what it means to be a man and a father, what it means to love and respect a woman, and about sexuality, he said.

“We would be remiss if we didn’t look to our own families and our own formation of young men who will become the next generation of priests and bishops,” he said.

He also said he believed there could be an expanded role of the laity in seminary formation, in the diocesan chancery, in parish and diocesan councils, and in finance councils.

What the laity cannot do, Garvey said, is have the authority to remove bishops from ministry, because the Church is marked by a commitment to apostolic succession, which is a “chain of witness that guarantees the truth of the Gospel.” But while the Church “cannot subordinate bishops to lay oversight without undermining the foundation of our faith,” he said, the Church could find ways to design around that problem.

While doing this work of renewing the Church, Garvey said, “we should resist the temptation to transform the Church into our own image and in service to our own ends,” no matter how noble those may be, because “building up the Church must be a work marked by fidelity to Him.”