(RNS) — In 2018, the Catholic world was reeling from the one-two punch of abuse allegations against Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and the scathing Pennsylvania grand jury report exposing Catholic clergy sexual abuse of over 1,000 children over the previous 70 years. That reckoning prompted a group of researchers from 10 Jesuit institutions to mobilize to look for ways to stem a crisis of clergy sexual abuse that is now reaching its fourth decade.
At Georgetown University, a priest began studying the healing effect of abuse survivors’ stories; an ethicist at New York’s Fordham University began investigating how Black survivors had been erased from the clergy abuse crisis; in Milwaukee, an interdisciplinary team at Marquette University started a workshop for Catholic teens on abusive power dynamics.
These projects are three of the 18 funded by an unnamed foundation and whose findings are published in Taking Responsibility, a 68-page report from Fordham University released in January.
The report includes case studies of abuse cover-up in Baltimore, Chicago and Omaha, Nebraska; research on topics such as moral injury; and guides for whistleblowing and for communicating about abuse. Though the report concludes with recommendations for Jesuit leaders, the findings, according to project director Bradford Hinze, a professor of theology at Fordham, can be applied broadly.
Several of the projects fault clericalism, or the Catholic hierarchy, with fostering clergy’s sense of superiority, isolation and ultimately abuse. As part of the remedy, the report calls for priests and their institutions to confront survivors’ stories, both past and present, head-on.
The Rev. Gerard McGlone, senior research fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University and a Jesuit priest, sees abuse survivors’ stories as sacred. “To me, placing survivors’ stories first is about cultural transformation,” he told Religion News Service. “It’s about having a community that believes those who have been harmed, rather than those in power.”
McGlone used his part of the grant to launch a study of more than 150 participants who engaged with survivors’ stories in video, written and listening formats. They also took pre- and post- surveys.
Preliminary findings, which McGlone called “staggering,” suggest that listening to survivors’ stories increases a person’s levels of spirituality and decreases their loss of meaning and sense of institutional betrayal.
“What was stunning in the research is that initially, the rates of moral injury of several different components that have been known in the field were lowered when the person heard and saw a survivor’s story,” McGlone said.
Most participants — many reached through advertisements in America magazine and National Catholic Reporter — were practicing Catholics. Yet engaging with the stories didn’t diminish their church attendance or beliefs. McGlone, who hopes the findings can be replicated in future studies, said they could have sweeping impacts.
“How might survivor stories become part of a new catechesis?” he asked. “How might it be integrated into the fabric of who we are as Catholic believers?”
For his project, the Rev. Bryan Massingale, a priest in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and a theological ethicist at Fordham, grappled with the link between white supremacy and the church’s failed response to clergy abuse of Black people. “In many ways this report is really the only one in existence yet to take the experience of African Americans and make it central,” he told RNS.
Massingale analyzed the limited data available on Black Catholic survivors and discovered several barriers to knowing the full extent of their trauma. Most Catholic dioceses don’t collect data on survivors’ race and ethnicity. Race-specific barriers also prevent Black folks from reporting abuse in the first place, as they may not trust law enforcement. They may fear that they won’t be believed by authorities or by a jury, particularly if the abuse was perpetrated by a white priest in good standing.
The church can help more Black survivors, Massingale said, by collecting survivors’ demographic data and creating forums designed explicitly for Black survivors and other victims of color to process their trauma. Many Black victims, he said, “find it very difficult to tell their story without talking about how race impacted their experience.”
In addition, Massingale said those who present education materials on clergy sexual abuse need to rethink the images they include — “Do we allow victims/survivors/copers of color to see themselves as part of this narrative?” he asked. The church may also need to reevaluate what terms are used to describe those who’ve been abused. Black communities who’ve long had to cope with white supremacy, for instance, might prefer the term “coper” over such words as “victim” or “survivor.”
While Massingale and McGlone focused on survivors’ stories, the Marquette team studied how to best equip teens to identify abusive power dynamics. The team found 161 different educational materials for children across 196 dioceses that were often inconsistent, outdated and without theological grounding. One group used a video from 1998 in which a yellow dinosaur teaches kids about “tricky people.”
“There was very little reference to power dynamics, and that was why we decided to focus our workshop on power. Particularly, who has power, and how they have power based on their social context,” said Karen Ross, professor of theology and ethics at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.
Mark Levand, education practicum coordinator at Widener University’s Center for Human Sexuality Studies, added that none of the materials discussed comprehensive sexuality education, despite research showing it reduces rates of sexual abuse and increases reporting.
To fill the void, Ross, Levand and Cathy Melesky Dante, a spiritual director and Ph.D. candidate studying solidarity with abuse survivors at Marquette, held workshops for teens — one for younger teens, one for older teens — in the Diocese of Milwaukee. Using icebreakers, discussions and case studies, they walked teens through what healthy relationships look like and gave them tools to identify emotional abuse, sexual coercion, intimidation and isolation. In surveys, participants reported learning about their own autonomy and power in relationships.
Melesky Dante told RNS the workshop used Jesus’ resurrection as an example of wielding power for good. “This is our God using power to raise people from the dead. How does this inform how we think about power?” The workshops also incorporated the Examen of St. Ignatius of Loyola, a prayer technique that allows participants to reflect on when they felt close to or far from God during the session. (Their teaching guide is available on Fordham’s website.)
“In a Catholic framework, having more dialogue around standards and what we can do as a church to help integrate sexuality into a broader curriculum is really important,” said Levand. “I hope it starts a dialogue about the importance of power dynamics in relationships and also most specifically in Catholic spaces.”
If its lessons are taken seriously, the authors of the Fordham report say, it could be a critical step toward justice and abuse prevention. But ending the clergy abuse crisis continues to be an uphill battle. In November, a probe uncovered more than 600 abuse victims of Catholic clergy over 80 years in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. A month earlier, the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo submitted to government oversight after a lawsuit accusing former bishops of sexual abuse coverup.
“We know that in dioceses across the country, it’s often the case that lawyers have in the past told bishops, you don’t want to get involved. You don’t want to talk to victims. … You don’t want to speak out publicly, for fear that this might have an adverse effect on your institution,” said Hinze. “My great hope and desire is that there will be much more open discussion and collaboration with people around these issues as we move forward.”