Convening, Consulting, and Advocating for Renewal and Reform

Georgetown University Campus
Georgetown University

Project Description

The Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University shared in the work of the Taking Responsibility via a project “Convening, Consulting, and Advocating for Renewal and Reform.” As a Catholic and Jesuit university, Georgetown University, like other Jesuit universities, has a deep tradition of inquiry, reflection, and engaging with matters of deep concern to Catholic institutions and the Society of Jesus. The Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life has led the university in sustained, substantive reflection and responses in addressing the twin crises of the clergy sexual abuse crisis and leadership failure within the Catholic Church. The Initiative has convened twelve (to date) public dialogues on the abuse crisis in recent years, in addition to its other work.

Key Findings

Building on the Initiative’s work in addressing the clergy sexual abuse crisis, including our 2019 Convening on Lay Leadership, the Initiative summarized ten lessons learned that we hope will inform our response to the crisis going forward, and serve as a roadmap for Jesuit educational institutions and the entire U.S. Catholic church in responding to the clergy sexual abuse crisis:

1. Put Victim-Survivors at the Center of the Church’s Response

The original sins of the sexual abuse crisis were the failure to listen and believe victim-survivors as they told us what had happened to them and the terrible harm it caused, and the failure to act quickly and decisively to remove the perpetrators and to protect others. These failures occurred over the course of decades, and they continue to occur today. As the Church seeks repentance, justice, reform, and renewal, we must listen to victim-survivors, their families, and all those affected by clergy sexual abuse.

2. Confront Clericalism, Overcome Isolation, and Support Faithful Clergy

Clergy sexual abuse cannot be discussed honestly without recognizing the toxic culture of clericalism. Some clergy are both isolated and arrogant, seeing ministry as a form of status rather than service. This self-reinforcing culture – often exacerbated by failures to embrace contributions from women, those from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds, and other underrepresented groups – is too often accepted and reinforced by laypeople ourselves. A culture of clericalism can lead to abuses of power and contributes to and permits institutional cover-up of abuse. We need a new culture of candor that calls on lay people inside and outside of ecclesial structures to challenge the insular and self-reinforcing culture of some chanceries and ecclesial institutions.

3. Hold Leaders Accountable and Insist on Transparency

While much remains to be done, this past year has seen some welcome developments in Church law, practices, and policies aimed at holding bishops accountable for clergy sexual abuse and its cover-up, including the promulgation of Vos estis lux mundi by Pope Francis and related efforts by the U.S. bishops. But these partial steps towards accountability cannot take root unless Church leaders internalize and embrace them, and in the process change ecclesial culture and practice. Lay leaders must be directly involved to hold leaders accountable. Transparency is an essential tool of accountability, and we should insist that bishops tell the truth with candor instead of making excuses or seeking to protect themselves or the institution.

4. Focus on Seminary Formation

Seminary formation needs fundamental review and reform. Seminaries should be less isolating, more connected with the reality of local parish communities, and more open to lay participation, partnership, and feedback. Seminarians are too often formed in isolation and set apart. Elite seminaries can be a particular problem, sometimes suggesting that priestly ministry is a privilege, and isolating future priests away from family and parish communities. Laypeople should have a significant role in educating and assessing future priests.

5. Promote and Reflect the Diversity of the Church

The diversity of our Church is a source of strength, not weakness. We find unity in this diversity, and this can and should ground our ecclesial life and public witness. The Church needs greater participation from those whose voices are too often underrepresented in Church structures, including women, African Americans, Latinos, those from differing economic groups, and those with different political or ecclesial perspectives. This will strengthen ecclesial decision-making, enrich our voice in public life, and better reflect the experience of in-the-pews Catholicism.

6. Focus on our Gospel Mission and Build Unity

The Church needs to repent and reform not simply to repair its institutional and ecclesial life, but to renew and strengthen its capacity to preach the Gospel, celebrate the sacraments, and care for “the least of these.” The Church’s mission will not be whole or engaging without overcoming the evil of clergy sexual abuse. And it will be the mission of the Church carried out day by day which can ultimately help restore trust and draw the support and confidence of the faithful.

7. New Voices to Share Catholic Principles in Public Life

The sexual abuse and leadership crises have severely damaged the credibility and impact of Catholic hierarchical institutions in American public life. This is especially tragic at a time of national division when it is crucial that the voice of the Church be clear and credible in defense of the poor and vulnerable, the unborn and undocumented, and in advocating for religious freedom and racial justice. New leaders need to step forward to share the Church’s social teaching and everyday experience in order to effectively defend the weak and advance the common good. Lay women and men need to step up to the call to become salt, light and leaven in the world.

8. National Collaboration Among Ministries

The leaders of Catholic ministries that care for the poor, sick, hungry, and homeless around the world and in our communities; who educate the young and care for the old; and who care for pregnant women and their children especially need to be the face and voice of the Catholic Church. These ministries should look for additional opportunities to work together, and consider more effective structures of collaboration, communication, and advocacy. Catholic social teaching offers a principled and unifying framework around which Catholic lay leaders can come out of our respective silos and come together in efforts to resist polarization, protect the vulnerable, and advance the common good.

9. Build Partnerships and Enhance Collaboration Among Clergy and Laypeople

Bishops and clergy must work in partnership and co-responsibility with lay leaders, respecting their different vocations and utilizing their experience and expertise. For this effort to be successful, it will be essential to build trust between lay leaders and the hierarchy, inviting genuine dialogue and sharing of concerns, hopes, and best practices.

10. Be Both Humble and Bold

Convening participants consistently lifted up our need for the virtue of humility rooted in prayer and reflection. All members of the Church need to learn to listen more, reach out to others with differing backgrounds and perspectives, and move beyond ecclesial and ideological divisions to work together for the good of the Church

Principal Investigators

John Carr is the Founder and Co-director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University. The Initiative seeks to share Catholic social thought more broadly and deeply, promote principled civil dialogue, and reach out to a new generation of leaders. In nearly 10 years, the Initiative has organized 140 dialogues at the intersection of faith and politics, reaching more than 250,000 people. The Initiative has organized and hosted a dozen Public Dialogues and a National Leadership Convening on Lay Leadership and the Clergy Abuse Crisis. John has dealt with clergy sexual abuse personally, professionally, and institutionally for more than 50 years. He is a survivor of clergy sexual abuse and has lived with this crisis as a lay leader in the Archdiocese of Washington, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Georgetown University. He wrote about eight lessons he had learned over those five decades in America and his leadership was featured in the National Catholic Reporter. John and his wife Linda live in Cheverly, Maryland. They have four children and eight grandchildren.

Kim Daniels is the Co-director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University. She was appointed by Pope Francis as a Member of the Vatican Dicastery for Communication in 2016, and in that role was an advisor to the organizing committee for the February 2019 Vatican Meeting on the Protection of Minors in the Church. In August 2021 Kim was also appointed a member of the Synod 2021-2023 Communications Commission. Additionally, Kim delivered remarks on Trusting the Church, Its Communication, and Its Communicators for the Inspiring Trust Conference held by the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome in April 2021. She is also a consultor to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee for Religious Liberty, and has advised the U.S.C.C.B. and other Catholic institutions on a broad range of issues where Church teachings intersect with public life, including immigration, human life and dignity, religious liberty, and care for creation. Kim is a graduate of Princeton University and the University of Chicago Law School, and she and her husband have six children.