The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What caused the clergy sex abuse crisis? Catholic universities are pushing for debate on the answer.

Then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick speaks during a memorial service in South Bend, Ind, in March 2015. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune/Pool/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

The Catholic clergy sex abuse crisis is caused by a too-fawning deference to clerics called “clericalism.” Or a failure to guard against the sleazy culture outside the church. Or a moral relativism that denies one “truth.” Or gay priests. Or a warped bureaucratic structure that’s kind of like the Mafia.

U.S. Catholics know they are in the thick of a clergy sexual abuse crisis, but that’s where agreement ends. When the abuse topic exploded in the church in the early 2000s, everyone knew the focus was stopping the shuffling around and coverup of priests abusing children.

In 2019, there’s a void. With that lack of consensus, many parish priests are saying little about the crisis.

Some Catholic universities are plunging into that space with new abuse-related academic credentialing programs, million-dollar research grants and conferences — all related to exploring the reasons for clergy abuse. Among the conferences was one this week at Catholic University, which is run by U.S. bishops, about the “root causes” of the crisis. It featured something Catholics don’t see often: experts with totally different points of view on the topic sharing a stage at a prominent Catholic institution.

Georgetown University has had four public dialogues — organized by an abuse survivor — on the crisis, with names such as “Confronting a Moral Catastrophe.” The University of Notre Dame in Indiana will offer up to $1 million for research related to abuse. Santa Clara University in California is asking about perspectives on abuse of Latino Catholics and Catholics from other countries. Ave Maria University in Florida is publishing a book of papers on spiritual responses to the crisis and giving copies to bishops. Fordham University also held an event this week with longtime researchers on abuse data and a priest who is part of Pope Francis’s child protection commission.

"This is unlike in 2002, when it was clear what the crisis was. It was clear what needed to be done,” said Susan Timoney, an associate dean at Catholic University who gave the introduction for Healing the Breach of Trust, the day-long conference held on Tuesday. This crisis, which began in the summer, “brought more complex issues related to cultures inside the church. A crisis of clericalism, lack of transparency, misuse of power, rumor, innuendo. These are questions that raise issues that don’t have such clear-cut fixes.”

Pope's ring-kissing controversy draws confusion

The event brought experts with different perspectives to panels looking at the roles of power, organizational behavior, sexuality and media narratives.

Pope Francis has singled out clericalism as a key cause of the crisis, saying there is a toxic and un-Christian culture of ministerial superiority in Catholicism that allowed and allows clerics to be unaccountable. Francis’s critics, on the other hand, bemoan what they see as him doing: things that shrink the status of the papacy, and with it the idea that the church represents God and what’s right and true in a world becoming ever more subjective.

Richard Gaillardetz, chairman of the Boston College theology department and former president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, argued that the early church saw bishops who were picked in consultation with local parishioners and who were committed to their geographic area, rather than moving around, as bishops often do now — usually to more prestigious gigs as they go. Gaillardetz cited a pact made in the 1960s, near the end of the Second Vatican Council, a major meeting that liberalized parts of the Catholic Church. Dozens of bishops signed the deal, in which they pledged to live simply in all areas, such as housing, food, transport, and not to use titles that emphasize power, such as those still used for bishops and cardinals, including “Your Eminence.”

As Tuesday’s conference was unfolding, Catholics around the world were hotly debating a video that showed Francis pulling his hand away slightly as a long line of visitors bowed to kiss his papal ring. Critics said Francis was insulting people who weren’t trying to kiss him, but rather the office of their church’s head. Catholicism teaches that the pope is the successor to Peter, a leader of Jesus’ Apostles.

“Francis wants us to think of bishops as pastors, not as a quasi-monarchical figure,” Gaillardetz told The Washington Post at the meeting. “To the extent you think of yourself not in service to people but as a member of a special club, you are immune from criticism. All of that is a recipe for abuse because it makes membership in the club the most important thing. ... [Bishops] think, ‘I deserve to be cut some slack.’ ”

Catholic University theologian Chad Pecknold said the crisis among priests was rooted in liberalizing sexual, gender and theological norms, playing out in what he called a “fatherhood crisis” and “father wounds” that led to abuse. He said the Church must not veer from offering one clear truth — particularly on issues of sex, gender and family — and that it stumbles, and becomes corrupt, when it instead tries to be more like a democracy with different answer for different constituencies.

“The priest or bishop who knows best how to handle a situation to bring about the greatest good for the greatest number is not a father; he is a bureaucrat,” he said. “This is clericalism, too.”

An American pope? Rare, leaked report of Francis' election shows top-ranked American for the first time

John Garvey, Catholic University’s president, said he has raised nearly $400,000 in recent months to start an effort called the Catholic Project, which aims to tackle the abuse issue in different ways.

In addition to conferences like the one Tuesday, the school has started running management programs for bishops (on topics including crisis management) and this fall will begin an interdisciplinary training for people who work in child protection. The training will include facets of social work, civil law and church law.

“This is a Vatican II-like project,” Garvey told The Post on Tuesday. “A big part of this is helping ourselves and others understand what’s going on, to help people have a conversation.”

The University of Notre Dame will feature two campus-wide events on the topic. The effort, according to a March 4 letter by the university president, the Rev. John Jenkins, will focus not just on abuse but “also on the broader questions the current crisis raises, such as structures of accountability, clericalism, the role of women, creating and sustaining ethical cultures and the continued accompaniment of survivors.”

In the letter, Jenkins also announced the school will provide up to $1 million in the coming three years to fund research projects “that address issues emerging from the crisis.” Details of how to apply haven’t yet been announced.

Santa Clara University, a Jesuit school near San Jose, hosted a panel about how the abuse issue looks from the West Coast, said Julie Rubio, a theologian who spoke at Catholic University’s conference. It included significant voices from Latino congregations and the large, diverse populations of immigrants in the area.

On the panel were two women from Uganda and India. “To them, the issue of clergy abuse is about women and girls,” Rubio said.

A commission of the Catholic Theological Society of America is considering what theological debates are most central, said Rubio, who is on that board. At the conference, some speakers and attendees said the world in recent centuries has changed regarding many issues that touch the crisis but interpretations of Catholic theology have not.

Rubio was on a panel at the conference about the role of human sexuality and sexual teaching. The two presenters couldn’t have offered more different perspectives.

The Rev. Paul Sullins, a Catholic University sociologist, presented his analysis of existing data to argue that the disproportionately high percentage of gay priests cannot be ignored as a root of the crisis.

Rubio said the crisis can’t be separated from the bigger societal picture. Sexual violence is overwhelmingly male and is about power, she said. Rubio teaches ethics to students who are seminarians mixed in with those who are not. She is part of a movement in the church that says the crisis is caused in part by a lack of frank talk about sexuality to people studying to become priests, including celibacy as a legitimate form of expression and living involving people who seek intimacy and sometimes slip up in their promises of fidelity.

“I’m not sure we can separate sex from power,” she told the audience. “This abuse of power was sexual: power exacted through sexual acts.”

An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that panelists at a Santa Clara University event, from Uganda and India, were part of a school working group. This post has been updated.