Five Questions with Gonzaga University on Conversion and Colonialism

Michelle Wheatley is Vice President for Mission and Ministry at Gonzaga University. Her areas of focus include Jesuit mission leadership and organizational development.

Megan K. McCabe is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Gonzaga University. She works in the areas of Catholic moral theology, theological ethics, and feminist theologies. Her research and teaching respond to questions of human responsibility for suffering and the correlative duties to work for social transformation.  She is currently co-chairing a five-year seminar at AAR, “Contextualizing the Catholic Sexual Abuse Crisis.”

B. Kevin Brown is Senior Specialist for Faculty and Staff Formation (Mission and Ministry) and Adjunct Instructor of Religious Studies at Gonzaga University. His research focuses on questions in ecclesiology raised by marginal and non-dominative voices particularly questions raised in light of the clergy sexual abuse crisis and the church’s participation in patriarchy and white racist supremacy. He also seeks to address how ecclesiology intersects with Christology, pneumatology, ecological theology, spirituality, and theological anthropology.

Michelle, Kevin, and Megan are the principal investigators for the Taking Responsibility project “‘Our transgressions before you are many, and our sins testify against us’ (Is 59:12a): Re-Imagining Church in Light of Colonization and Catholic Sexual Abuse.” Their project brings together a wide range of scholars to look at the vital intersections of race, ecclesiology, and sexual abuse suggested by the title, and we caught up with them in early 2022 to ask about the project’s impetus and progress.

Jesuit missionaries in Alaska, c. 1910 (Archives of the University Alaska-Fairbanks)

TR: 1) Your project has a verse from Isaiah as its title: “‘Our transgressions before you are many, and our sins testify against us’ (Is 59:12a).” Tell us how you came to choose that, and how it’s guided your work.

MW, MM, & KB: We understand our work as constitutive of our university’s Jesuit, Catholic, humanistic mission. The Ignatian spiritual and educational traditions invite us to contemplate what is real, even and especially when that reality is painful and moves us to responses that challenge the status quo, our own egos, and the limits of our imagination. These traditions, at their heart, call people and institutions to a conversion away from our participation in the sin of the world and toward work that serves the realization of God’s reign in history.

That verse from Isaiah comes from a passage in which the prophet laments the failures of the people of God to embody God’s justice. The passage also makes clear that if the people want to live as a community marked by that justice, they must face the historical reality of its sins and the resulting injustice. When we imagined what shape this project might take, we wanted to ensure that we do not shy away from addressing the ways that the church has failed to live into our identity as a community of God’s people by perpetuating the brokenness that the church, in our mission to serve the Reign of God, is called to mend.

Now-notorious abuser James Poole, SJ, with Alaskan children in the 1970s

TR: 2) In many ways I know the answers to this question will seem obvious — and yet I still think there’s a lot of value in asking how centering Native voices, histories, and experiences in the discussion about clerical sexual abuse changes our overall understanding of “the clerical sexual abuse crisis.”

MW, MM, & KB: As we have listened to Native members of our university community, we have been challenged to recognize, to a greater degree than we had acknowledged before, the traumatic impacts of clergy sexual abuse on only individual victims and survivors but also on entire communities and generations. We have been confronted not only by the fact that sexual abuse in the Catholic Church has disproportionally affected communities of color and Native communities, but by how that abuse has been experienced as a tool of colonization and racist domination. Paying attention to patterns of abuse against historically marginalized communities points to systemic features of clergy sexual abuse in the U.S. that have yet to be fully reckoned with. Ongoing scholarship is investigating to what extent abuse in Native communities was ignored, was made possible by sending known abusers to Native communities, in some sense even created abusers by putting priests, sisters, and brothers into communities that were seen as “available,” and were otherwise made possible by colonialism. By attending to these dimensions of clergy sexual abuse, this conference will hopefully provide a greater understanding of the systems that made the abuse crisis possible and indicate what must be done going forward to facilitate healing and foster a new reality for the church.

3) What is the relationship of this project to the Commission on the University Response to Sexual Abuse that two of you co-chaired?

MW, MM, & KB: In December 2018, Jesuits West released a list of credibly accused priests in the province and the publication of a story pointing to credibly accused Jesuits housed in a community “adjacent” to Gonzaga’s campus. These two projects, the Commission and the Taking Responsibility-sponsored conference, are related but distinct. They both grew out of a desire in our university to face the realities of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in a more robust and sustained way. The Commission’s role was to frame up some immediate system-wide steps that could move the institution forward in responding to Catholic sexual abuse in ways appropriate to a university. Academic work is an essential dimension of that contribution, and projects like this conference are an important expression of that commitment.

4) What drew you to the idea of a conference as your final project? What do you see as the value of these kinds of gatherings?

MW, MM, & KB: Important work has been done to address the roots of clericalism, the abusive nature of hierarchical systems of power and authority, the violence of patriarchal models of ministry, and the hope found in alternative models of ministry, leadership, and authority. As it has become more apparent in recent years that sexual abuse in the Catholic Church has disproportionately affected historically vulnerable, under-recognized, and marginalized communities, we noticed a need to put theological effort into addressing how the ecclesiological matters we mentioned a moment ago intersect with, and in some cases are rooted in, other structures of domination that are not exclusive to the Catholic Church (for example, white supremacy, Christian supremacy, colonialism, and racialized supersessionism).

We felt that a conference would provide space for scholars who are beginning to explore these questions to share their work with colleagues.  Additionally, it allowed us to invite scholars whose work brings a critical voice to the questions raised by recent revelations about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church to address that reality, even if they have not formally written on clergy abuse before now. Our hope is that the conference will catalyze further work around these topics, in part, through the publication of the papers delivered at the conference and by sharing the insights that arise in our discussions with colleagues at other AJCU and IAJU institutions.

5) Your team has been very closely attuned to the release of information about Jesuit abusers in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska over the last few years. What are the questions that you still have, the information that is not out there that you think is important to know?

MW, MM, & KB: One of the most significant questions has to do with discernment: How were decisions made about who would be missioned to Indigenous communities, especially when credible accusations had been raised about a particular priest or brother? This question is not a matter of simply trying to pin blame on one person or another. At the heart of any authentically Christian understanding of repentance is not retribution but rather a desire to make whole that which was broken and to strive not break that relationship again. If there is any hope that the relationships shattered by clergy abuse might be healed and not broken again in the same way, there needs to be an understanding of what happened in the past and what led people to make decisions that caused so much harm. Moreover, ecclesiologically, knowing this history might offer a way forward so that we might imagine building community and exercising positions of ministerial leadership and authority. The most important questions that need to be answered, however, are the questions that are brought forward by victim-survivors, their families, and their communities.