When the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report was released to the public in 2018, no one knew quite the effect it would have and continue to have over the next two years.
The report detailed the findings of the widest examination of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church conducted by a government agency, including the names of 71 clergy members accused of engaging in sexual abuse of children.
“Everyone on the East Coast, but also nationally, was so overwhelmed by the detail of that report and the number of priests and bishops it was vociferously criticizing,” said Bradford Hinze, the Karl Rahner, S.J. professor of theology at Fordham University.
While this news spread across the country, a similar reaction was felt at Gonzaga University.
This was not the first time information regarding clergy sexual abuse had come to light. The first instance of potentially groundbreaking information was in 1985, in what Hinze said was a wave of momentary unrest but ultimately very little was actually addressed.
In 2002, the Boston Globe Spotlight team began what would become an extensive coverage of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, ultimately leading to the prosecution of five Roman Catholic priests. The investigations that followed not only caused a national uproar but revealed patterns of sexual abuse in dioceses across the United States.
Sixteen years later and the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report sparked something different, a systemic approach to the issue that hadn’t yet been extensively addressed.
“Following the 2018 Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report, there was a renewal and increase in the work among scholars, at the Catholic universities and in professional societies dedicated to theology and religious studies,” said Michelle Wheatley, the vice president of Mission and Ministry at Gonzaga University, in an email.
Members of the theology department and the Curran Center for American Catholic Studies at Fordham University decided to convene after the release of the report and facilitate discussion on numerous issues around clergy abuse. These discussions happened frequently for the remainder of the year and ultimately officials at Fordham were approached by a private foundation to consider developing a project proposal designed to explore the Catholic clergy sexual abuse of minors.
Shortly after, Fordham was awarded a grant and an interdisciplinary initiative called “Taking Responsibility” was created. With an overall aim of invoking rigorous study to practical change, Taking Responsibility is exploring the relationship between the structures of Roman Catholic and Jesuit institutions of secondary and higher education.
Hinze was elected program director and the initiative began receiving major project proposals from Jesuit Universities on a range of issues that addressed the central components. It was here GU was brought into the conversation.
“From very early on as we explored possible projects, we learned about the work being done at Gonzaga University with victim-survivors, but also with the vulnerable and wounded communities affected,” Hinze said.
Wheatley, Kevin Brown and Megan McCabe submitted an application in April 2020 for a sub grant from Fordham to run a conference next year at GU. The conference, which was accepted this summer, will bring scholars of religious studies and theology together and initiate conversations around Catholic sexual abuse, particularly in historically vulnerable, under-recognized and marginalized communities.
GU has taken conscious steps in recent years to bring attention to this issue. Especially after it came to light that, for more than three decades, at least 20 Jesuit priests accused of sexual misconduct were living in the Cardinal Bea House in the middle of GU's campus.
“The grant will fund the opportunity to facilitate the interdisciplinary dialogue and research that explores how systems like clericalism, Christian supremacy, racism, white supremacy and colonization intersected in the abuse of persons who belong to marginalized communities and the cover-up of that abuse which allowed it to continue,” said Brown, the senior specialist for faculty and staff formation and adjunct instructor of religious studies at GU, in an email.
The conference itself will not be open to the public, however two subsequent lectures and discussions by conference partners will be, he said.
“Through the two public lectures we hope to invite the wider Gonzaga and local communities into dialogue with the work of a few of the scholars attending the conferences,” Brown said.
In addition, discussion will be structured around 12 seminar papers, individually authored by 12 conference participants. The work begun at the conference in line with these papers will be published and made widely available in hopes of sustaining conversation.
“The conference will pay special attention to the causes and legacy of clergy sexual abuse in the former Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus,” said McCabe, assistant professor of religious studies at GU, in an email. “Centering the concrete realities of sexual abuse and victimization in this region forces us to recognize that in the Oregon Province, clergy sexual abuse was perpetrated within Native American and Alaskan Native communities.”
The issue of clergy abuse becomes more complex when the disproportionate effect had on Native American and Alaskan Native communities is addressed. That effect, McCabe said, has been cited by both Native American victim-survivors and their communities, in part, as an extension of the violence of colonization.
“[This conference] seeks to bring the academic and scholarly resources of the university to the service of the church and world, contributing a greater awareness of the role of colonization and white supremacy to conversations about sexual abuse in the church in the U.S.,” McCabe said.
This victim-survivor approach is one of the most basic fundamentals of the entire initiative, Hinze said. Nothing is done without the inclusion of victim-survivors.
Recognizing and acknowledging the experience of a victim-survivor carries enormous weight, he said. Simply hearing and believing can have profound effects, thus the broader discussion around that very possibility is what Taking Responsibility is trying to establish.
That being said, Hinze recognizes the initiative won’t create change overnight, the issue is deeply systemic. He compared the nature of their work to the Black Lives Matter movement and the racial conflict occurring in the United States right now.
“Clergy abuse provides a very painful case study that’s analogous to issues raised by racism,” Hinze said. “It’s not simply a matter of an individual person doing a horrible thing or a horrible thing many times. Rather, it’s a cultivation of culture, a deeper culture that has to be addressed. When it comes to issues of clergy abuse, we have to look deeper.”
More information can be found at https://www.fordham.edu/info/29937/gonzaga_university.