Notre Dame takes lead on discussing sexual abuse crisis

Notre Dame’s Forum, “Rebuild My Church: Crisis and Response,” hosted a keynote event on Wednesday, September 25. The event, titled “Where Are We Now?,” brought together Peter Steinfels, former New York Times reporter and Commonweal editor; Juan Carlos Cruz, a victim of clergy sexual abuse who has since become a survivor’s advocate; Kathleen McChesney, former executive assistant director at the FBI; and Archbishop of Baltimore William Lori, the architect of the 2002 landmark Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.

Steinfels opened the conversation with an overview of the crisis. “Most of us […] know much less about this painful, stomach-churning scandal than we think we know,” Steinfels said, calling for a genuine history of sex abuse within the Church. Despite recognizing the important role of lawsuits in the documentation of this crisis, he recommended a broader approach, commenting that, “a trial is not a history.” 

Steinfels also listed major reasons for discussing the issue within the Church, citing the unfortunately global nature of sex abuse and subsequent cover-ups, the American distrust of Catholic hierarchy after learning of McCarrick’s actions, conflict between conservative and liberal agendas within the church, and a demand by victims, as well as the broader community, for change.

Juan Carlos Cruz followed Steinfels. Cruz explained his goals for the Catholic response to this persistent crisis. He called Church officials to be more transparent, and expressed his frustrations with the Church hierarchy. Cruz played a major role in Pope Francis’s change of policy towards allegations, calling him to address the sexual abuse crisis rather than ignoring it. Nonetheless, he expressed his disappointment about the Church’s ability to enact change. He said, “I went to the Vatican, I saw what happens, I know that he’s sincere, however, the bishops go talk to him say, ‘Absolutely, Pope Francis.’ […] They go back to their countries and do the same thing they’ve been doing – cover-up, cover-up, cover-up. Nobody holds them accountable, and that needs to stop.” Cruz considers the hierarchical nature of the Church to be problematic, and so, encouraged its members to “keep modernizing the church so that we break this clericalism.”

Kathleen McChesney was the first speaker of the evening to address a need for reform in the selection and formation of priests. She commented, “We expect one bishop who may have hundreds of priests to be in touch with them every day and knowing what they’re doing. […] In some dioceses that I work with, there’s not even someone who’s a vicar for clergy, or a priest for priests. You need people who can help these men.” 

Additionally, she perceives many of the issues complicating the crisis as structural, citing a lack of effective recordkeeping on the Church’s part. McChesney stressed the importance of accountability: “It is so critical for the men and women who have been abused to know that someone is responsible.” The way forward for McChesney includes addressing the root causes of these cases and embracing new technologies that will allow for greater clarity, accountability, and efficiency.

Archbishop William Lori explained the pre-existing policies intended to deal with the problem of clergy sexual abuse, particularly the Dallas Charter. The Dallas Charter was created in 2002 to handle sexual abuse allegations in an efficient, transparent manner. He expressed his disappointment in the persistent lack of action on the Church’s part, saying, “it’s one thing to have policies and procedures in place, it’s another to live them.” In his view, mere policy compliance cannot solve the crisis. Rather, transparency must be paired with “a conversion of mind and heart” within the Church. The response to this crisis must become, in his words, “as much a part of the life of the Church as evangelization is, as Catholic education is, as raising up vocations is.” 

Archbishop Lori also reflected on the need to learn how to listen to victims by putting the survivor in the driver’s seat and giving them control of the conversation. Additionally, Archbishop Lori encouraged more lay involvement within the Church. Indeed, after the United States Catholic College of Bishops recently failed to adopt effective policies in response to this crisis, he established several procedures and committees directed towards combating clergy abuse within his archdiocese. 

Archbishop Lori concluded, “We love the Church. […] We’re also made up of fallible human beings with a lot of weakness, a lot of blind spots, and sometimes we’re tragically flawed people. We’ve got to address this. We’ve got to continue being held accountable. Because the Church’s mission to spread the good news of Jesus Christ depends on it.”

Despite differences in relation to the abuse crisis – journalist, survivor, policy expert, bishop—all four of the panel members agreed that there is a need for greater transparency and responsibility within the Church. The conversation which started on September 26 will be continued throughout the coming Notre Dame Forum events. The next event in the Forum is a conversation with Archbishop Charles Scicluna on November 13. More information about the forum is available at

Mary Frances Myler is a sophomore in the Program of Liberal Studies with a minor in Theology. She prefers to live life off the grid on the shores of Lake Superior. Contact her at