The University Commission on Gonzaga’s Response to the Catholic Sexual Abuse Crisis met with GU students and community members on Sunday to engage in a Q&A inviting community feedback. Approximately 20 people attended the event. 

The commission was formed in response to news stories in December detailing that priests who had credible claims of sexual assault against them were housed in the Jesuit-owned Cardinal Bea House  in the middle of GU’s campus, near St. Aloysius Church.

The formation of this commission was announced in April and the group has met six times since. 

Members of the commission include co-chairs Michelle Wheatley, acting vice president of mission and ministry, and Megan McCabe, assistant professor of religious studies. Also on the commission is Vince Salyers, who serves as dean of the School of Nursing and Human Physiology, Steven Robinson, chair of GU’s board of regents, Patrick McCormick, GU professor of religious studies, licensed psychologist Fernando Ortiz, GU class of 2020 student Lindsay Panigeo, Fr. Tim Clancy, associate professor of philosophy and Jerri Shepard, an associate professor in the School of Education.

Not present were Ed Taylor, Ph.D., (BA ’82, MA ‘83), Vice Provost and Dean of Undergraduate Academic Affairs at the University of Washington and a GU trustee, and Jerri Shepard, associate professor in the School of Education. 

Several themes were reiterated throughout the event including keeping victims and survivors at the forefront, moving forward as a community and making a meaningful contribution to discussion surrounding these issues. 

Some of the concrete action that was discussed included renaming buildings and scholarships that carry the names of individuals who have been credibly accused of sexual assault, new administrative processes  for Jesuits on campus, buying the Cardinal Bea House, changes to GU’s treatment of Native American students and memorials for survivors as well as victims. 

Many times throughout the event the complexity of the situation was emphasized, with colonization and intersectionality referenced. 

Several presentations were given during the event. These included Fr. Pat Howell, S.J., distinguished professor in residence at Seattle University who is on assignment at GU for the academic year, who spoke about the history of developments surrounding the Catholic Church’s abuse scandal.

Howell’s presentation focused on three main points of the scandal. The earlier point discussed was 1985, when the church learned about the issues and put in place safety plans for older, credibly accused priests. At this point in the timeline, the Seattle Archbishop responded forcibly to the issue. 

Next, in the development of the scandal was the 2002 report by the Boston Globe, which implicated the archbishop of Boston and brought national attention to the issue.  

Finally, Howell spoke about the Pennsylvania grand jury report linking more than 300 priests with sexual abuse claims. Howell specifically talked about the increase in accountability among bishops resulting from this report as well as Pope Francis calling for national conferences to address the issue while being sensitive to their own cultural practices. 

He then gave context to GU’s situation specifically, noting that there were two other assisted living facilities housing priests with allegations on or directly next to college campuses. 

The current state is “a moment of grace for the church … because what had been hidden and festering now has a chance to be addressed,” Howell said.

Wendy Thompson, who is the director of tribal relations in the Center for American Indian Studies at GU gave a presentation on the history between the Catholic church and the Native American people. 

Thompson talked about how tribal land in Montana has in the past been used as a church “dumping grounds for predatory priests.” 

Of this, Thompson said that Native Americans “have been dehumanized since the settlers got here. This [poor treatment by the Catholic Church] is just another example.” 

Kevin Brown, a professor of religious studies at GU, spoke about theological responses to the scandal. 

He talked about how the church is working to reform the role of bishops within the church and reduce clericalism or the power hierarchies within Catholicism. This power differential within the church, Brown said, is a driver of colonialism and white supremacy. 

McCormick said that one of the biggest challenges in moving forward is transparency. He said he was surprised by a general lack of shared knowledge in church leaders, saying, “none of the Jesuits knew what other Jesuits knew.”

McCormick also spoke on challenges with the size of the 12-person commission’s task. He said the scope they were tasked with, “felt too large for the resources and timeframe given the committee.”

There also were hopeful moments during this event. A member of the commission noted that GU is well equipped to deal with this issue because of the school’s theology. They mentioned that GU could “go deeper on this than other secular schools.” 

President Thayne McCulloh was not in attendance as he wanted community members to speak openly according to a member of the committee, but he was grateful to community members for participating. 

The commission will hold two more listening sessions. The first will be Oct. 24 from 8:30 to 10 a.m. in Hemmingson 314, and the second on Nov. 4 from 8:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. in Hemmingson 201.

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