Lecture proposes solution to sexual abuse crisis

Helen Alvaré, member of the Holy See’s Dicastery for Laity, Family, and Life and professor of law at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School, delivered a lecture at Notre Dame on the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse crisis on Thursday, September 23. Alvaré’s lecture, entitled “Abandonment to Divine Providence: How Truth and Reconciliation Can Become a Path to Healing Sex Abuse in the Catholic Church,” discussed the Church’s identity, her understanding of sexual expression, and potential paths towards healing from the sex abuse crisis.

Alvaré began her lecture with an explanation of the Truth and Reconciliation process, which has been used by numerous countries seeking to heal the personal and societal wounds caused by violence, war, genocide, or abuse of power. “The work of [Truth and Reconciliation] Commissions,” Alvaré summarized, “is to get at the full, unvarnished truth regarding the unhealed wounds of the past, hold the responsible parties accountable, and to restore relationships, if possible, between the perpetrators and all those harmed—not only the direct victims.” She referenced the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa after the end of apartheid as an example of the process’s suitability for addressing long-lasting individual and collective suffering.

The Truth and Reconciliation process, Alvaré explained, is an extended process which calls for engagement from all members of the community. The process begins with an exposition of the truth, often through dialogue between survivors, their loved ones, and the perpetrators of harm. Rather than seeking to move forward and let bygones be bygones, Truth and Reconciliation provides a framework for accepting responsibility for the past, apologizing, and possibly giving and receiving forgiveness. Informed by the perspectives of survivors of injustice, the process emphasizes the necessity of accountability and enables guilty parties to take greater responsibility for future actions.

A critical element of the Truth and Reconciliation process, Alvaré noted, is listening to the truth. She cited an experience she had as the chair of the Philadelphia Archidocesan Commission Investigating Clergy Sexual Abuse, when her team met with a group of abuse survivors to hear their stories.

“It was clear the survivors barely trusted us,” Alvaré recalled. Yet, hopeful for justice and assured that their stories would be met with grace, the survivors agreed to share their experiences of sexual abuse in the Church. “When they came in and told their stories, it was, without a doubt, the hardest, most gut-wrenching thing I have ever participated in for the good of the Church. There was crying on all sides,” Alvaré recollected.

“What I witnessed in connection with sexual abuse by clergy and religious was the suffocation of youth, innocence, happiness, freedom, romantic love, and the love of God,” Alvaré stated. “These losses are worthy of a Truth and Reconciliation process.”

Despite the grave pain felt by all participants in the conversation, Alvaré affirmed that listening to the truth and giving survivors an opportunity to share their stories led to healing. “At the end of these sessions, there was gratitude on both sides. It was palpable. It was too much to expect, considering what they told us,” she shared. “Affirming that injustice was done and that there was something to cry over—something worth screaming over—seemed to be the beginning of healing.”

Alvaré emphasized the importance of the Truth and Reconciliation process within the context of the Catholic Church. She proposed a vision of the Church’s identity as mother of the faithful and herald of the kingdom of God. This identity, she claimed, heightens the imperative for justice in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis, which opposes all that the Church teaches about the human person. The crisis is especially damaging because it betrays the significance of sexual expression which enables humanity to understand love for God, human relationship, and God’s love for mankind, Alvaré argued.

She indicated that a lack of diligent, restorative attention to the sexual abuse crisis harms the Church’s integrity as a witness to truth. “If the Church does not want to hear and tell the whole truth, take responsibility, submit to justice, and restore relationships, she is suggesting that she is quite mistaken about the role that sexual expression plays in human lives,” Alvaré argued. The Truth and Reconciliation process, however, would structure the Church’s response so that it unfolds with accountability, contrition, and integrity.

“It is true that the Church has come quite a distance in its grappling with the reality of sexual abuse and its cover-up. But there clearly remains the sense that a full reckoning, a more worthy healing process, remains to be done,” Alvaré noted before proposing that the Truth and Reconciliation process would constitute genuine abandonment to divine providence. This response to the crisis, she proposed, would allow for healing not only in the lives of survivors, but also in the Church’s self-understanding of her identity.

Alvare’s lecture was part of a day-long consultation hosted by the University of Notre Dame and dedicated to discussing the Church’s sexual abuse crisis and potential pathways towards healing through truth and reconciliation. The event was made possible in part by Notre Dame’s Church Sexual Abuse Crisis Research Grant Program, which originates with the 2019-20 Notre Dame Forum “Rebuild My Church,” which sought to respond to the sexual abuse crisis. Alvaré’s lecture was co-sponsored by the Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Government.

Mary Frances Myler is a senior in the Program of Liberal Studies with minors in theology and constitutional studies. She loves long walks—preferably along the shores of the Great Lakes, but she’s resigned herself to simply traversing campus (for now). Send suggestions for new routes to mmyler@nd.edu.  

Photo credit: University of Notre Dame, Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Government