‘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

Gonzaga University

Project Description

The roots of this project are found, in part, in Gonzaga University’s desire to confront and wrestle with the ways Catholic sexual abuse has intersected with the university’s own history. In 2018, many in the campus were outraged to learn that 1) a large number of Jesuits who had been credibly accused of sexual abuse were moved to Bea House, a Jesuit resident legally adjacent to, but in reality surrounded on all four sides by, the university and 2) that many of those Jesuits had abused children and women at Native American reservations. In response, the university president created a University Commission on Catholic Sexual Abuse. Simultaneously, NPR reported on the so-called “geographic solution” that was used in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, wherein abusive priests were missioned to predominantly Spanish-speaking parishes with high populations of undocumented parishioners, who were unlikely to report abuse to law enforcement officers. Similarly, new details about abuse in historically African-American parishes began to emerge in news outlets.

The Taking Responsibility initiative offered us the opportunity to consider how we might reflect on the ways that systemic and structural realities such as white supremacy, whiteness, Christian supremacy, colonialism, and racialized supersessionism contributed to clergy sexual abuse and its cover-up, as well as the ways that those realities intersected with clericalism and patriarchal domination. We felt that a conference, wherein scholars who have constructively engaged the Christian tradition’s participation in these structural sins previously were invited to explore them in light of the realities of clergy sexual abuse, would open avenues to discover new insights related to the causes and legacy of Jesuit sexual abuse. Since it was a working and invitation-only conference, we invited the university and local communities into dialogue with the work of conference through two livestreamed, public plenary addresses (which are linked below).

The first seminar featured Samuel B. Torres, Jr. of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, speaking on “Problematizing Reconciliation as a Justice Framework for US Indian Boarding Schools” and Kelly L. Schmidt (Washington University in St. Louis), speaking on “Sexual Abuse of Enslaved People in the US Catholic Church.” Schmidt, who has worked with the Jesuits’ project on the order’s history with slavery in the United States, explored how archival traces show that the structuring of the lives of enslaved persons point to patterns of sexual abuse of bondswomen and men at the hands of slaveholding Catholic religious. Samuel Torres drew on the history of Catholic sexual abuse in US Indian Boarding Schools, and the silence of the church on the matter, to suggest that reconciliation cannot be a means of working toward justice until there are both a recognition by the church of the intergenerational and community-wide harm done and efforts made to heal the wounds caused by abuse and its cover-up. Intersections were found in this session around the ethics of record keeping, the meaning of healing and justice, and the purpose of research into historical and continuing situations of injustice.

Seminar 2 featured Jeannine Hill Fletcher (Fordham University) on “Deep Roots of Divinized Domination or Thank God for the Grandmothers” and Tracy Sayuki Tiemeier (Loyola Marymount University) on “Church and State of Exception: The Necropolitics of Catholic Sexual Abuse.” Tiemeier illustrated how “settler colonial necropolitics subjects vulnerable peoples—especially women, children, queer folk, and Black, Indigenous, and people of color— to a living death where their only value is their ‘bare life,’ simple biological existence made to be dominated. Such subjection is necessary to prop up the power of and give meaning to the Catholic hierarchy, and to reinforce the ontological superiority of the hierarchy. In this context, Catholic sexual abuse is allowed, enabled, and perpetuated as an integral part of maintaining ecclesial domination.” She concluded that “if the Church is to address Catholic sexual abuse at all effectively, it must re-form its structure and reconnect to an erotic power of shared sacramental presence.” Jeannine Hill Fletcher drew on the histories of Jesuit institutions in the United States and the testimony of survivors of Catholic abuse at Indian boarding schools. She illustrated how educational systems run by religious orders like the Jesuits sought to educate Native children in ways that were distinct from the stated goals of their broader educational traditions. Native children were being educated for an existence marked not by the fullness of life promised by the Gospel but for a bare life that would serve the ends of settler-colonial and white, Christian supremacist epistemologies. Yet, in the spiritual traditions of their Native communities—often learned from their grandmothers—they found the power to survive. Intersections were found in the underlying logics and structures of domination at play in the sexual abuse of persons belonging historically marginalized communities by Jesuits as well as in constructive proposals developed in response to those logics of domination.

Seminar 3 featured Erin Kidd (St. John’s University, Queens, NY) on “Survivor Testimony, Epistemic Injustice, and Theological Harm” and Susan Bigelow Reynolds (Emory University) on “Migrant Survivors of Clergy Sexual Abuse, Unsealed Files, and Between-the-Lines Testimony.” Kidd addressed how epistemic injustice functions in ecclesial contexts, identifying the obstacles that keep survivors of clergy sex abuse from being believed, or from testifying about their abuse in the first place. She argued that the rejection of survivor testimony is a form of spiritual violence, in which the subject is harmed in her capacity as a knower and lover of God. In response, she developed the concept of “theological harm” to speak precisely about both the epistemic and spiritual harm that is done when a person’s testimony is not received by her community, and to name the harm to theology itself when it fails to listen to God-talk offered by survivors. Reynolds interrogated the politics of documentation in cases of clergy sexual abuse. She sought to discern the relationship between three interrelated forms of (un)documentation: 1) the undocumented and precarious legal status of victims; 2) the silences, redactions, euphemisms, and incomplete nature of the records within which such testimony is contained; and 3) the largely undocumented nature of these stories within the broader narrative of the sexual abuse crisis. She then examined how these compounding forms of undocumentation interface with church officials’ treatment of migrant parishes as dumping grounds for abusive priests before reflecting on certain troubling hypocrisies that emerge when one compares bishops’ treatment of undocumented victims to US Catholic bishops’ professed defense of the dignity of migrants and church teaching on the preferential option for the poor.

The final seminar featured Natalia Imperatori-Lee (Manhattan College), speaking on “From an Economy of Secrets to the Synodal Way: What the Church Can Learnfrom #MeToo,” and Melissa Pagán (Mount Saint Mary’s University, Los Angeles), speaking on “A Feminist Decolonial Theological Response to Catholic Sexual Abuse.” Imperatori-Lee addressed the reality of clergy sexual abuse in light of the larger continuum of sexual violence shaped by rape culture, misogyny, theologies of gender essentialism and complementarity, shame around human sexuality and secrecy surrounding sexual abuse that shame encourages and clericalism and the mechanism that seek to protect clerical privilege. She demonstrated that each of these theological and cultural factors contributes to an ecclesial culture that not only does not take the testimony of victims seriously but also discredits the testimony of their victims. Through a feminist, ecclesiological engagement with each of these realities she called for a way of being church that takes seriously not only the testimony of women and all victims of sexual assault but also their personhood in the church and world by living into the church’s call to be a synodal community. After attending to the horrors of clergy sexual abuse in communities historically dominated by a white, Euro-centric church, Melissa Pagán offered a constructive proposal rooted in her work as a decolonial, feminist theologian. In particular, she problematized the category of solidarity as a means of standing with victims and survivors given the way that the world solidarity has been banalized in the age of social media. Instead, she argued any response to Catholic sexual abuse must attend to the el grito (the scream) of the victim-survivors and their community through a radical vincular (linking, though Pagán noted this word is not easily translated into English).

Key Findings

  1. The classical narrative of Catholic sexual abuse in the United States, with its focus on white (and usually male) victims in Boston and Pennsylvania, has framed the story as a white narrative, ignoring how many historically marginalized communities have been disproportionately affected by Catholic abuse. Therefore, there is a need to tell a more complete story that examines how the oft-identified causes of clergy abuse and its cover-up intersect with and compound the church’s participation in white supremacy and colonialism.
  2. Patterns of clericalism, patriarchy, and hierarchical church order function in ways that are unique to each context. The conference papers demonstrated how the effects of clericalism are compounded when settler-colonial and white supremacist logics deem entire classes of people as somehow less than human or, in the words of Tracy Sayuki Tiemeier, relegate them “to a living death where their only value is their ‘bare life,’ simple biological existence made to be dominated.” Not only are those relegated to bare life more likely to be seen as disposable and therefore to be abused, but they are also less likely to be deemed as credible witnesses to their own experience.
  3. Victims’ narratives and testimony must be seen as theological sources and theologies in their own right. If Catholic theology is going to address the clergy sexual abuse crisis adequately it must diagnose the theological distortions that led to abuse and its concealment. But, it must also recognize spiritualities that allowed survivors to survive as locuses of theological reflection.
  4. The demand to address the intersectional and structural realities at play in Catholic abuse must lead to a reframing of the oft-stated aims of responding to the crisis. For instance, we must resist the understandable temptation to suggest that the primary way of responding to Catholic sexual abuse ought to be the implementation of safeguards for children, at least as that has been understood in the US. The only way to adequately address the causes and legacies of clergy sexual abuse is through deep and sustained structural and theological reform. This reform must reach down to the very roots of Catholic church order and the Catholic theological imagination. It must honestly reckon with how the life and mission of the church, which ought to be rooted in the ministry of a Jewish prophet executed by the Roman state for drawing on God’s conventual love to resist the death-dealing logics of the Roman imperial order, have been distorted by intersecting systems of clericalism, patriarchy, misogyny, heterosexism, settler-colonialism, white racist supremacy, supersessionism, and Christian supremacy, to the point that the church has become an instrument of what M. Shawn Copeland calls the new imperial disorder.
  5. The type of structural and theological reform needed in the church will be possible only when the insights of feminist, decolonial, and other liberationist theologians are a driving force of the church’s agenda for a renewal. But, more fundamentally, as Bryan Massingale noted in his paper at Fordham University in April 2022, no such reform—regardless of the intellectual and theological tools used—will be possible until the church—both the hierarchal church and the whole people of God—learn to recognize Brown and Black persons as beloved children of God.

Further Reading and Watching

Conference Keynote Addresses

News Articles

Other Resources [Under Construction]

Principal Investigators

Michelle Wheatley, Gonzaga UniversityMichelle Wheatley served for fifteen years at Gonzaga University in a succession of roles within the University Ministry and Mission offices, including Vice President for Mission Integration. She is the co-founder of the Wheatley Leadership Group and currently works with people and communities focused on unlocking potential through leadership development, executive coaching, and organizational consulting.


Megan K. McCabe, Gonzaga UniversityMegan 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. McCabe earned a B.A. in Theology from Fordham University (2008), a Master’s of Theological Studies from the University of Notre Dame (2010), and a Ph.D. in Theological Ethics from Boston College (2017). She engages questions at the intersection of moral theology, social ethics, liberation and political theologies, feminist theologies and ethics, and issues of gender and sexuality. Her current research develops an understanding of “cultures of sin,” specifically in the context of an examination of the problem of the cultural foundation of sexual violence. Her work has been published in the edited volume Love, Sex, and Families: Catholic Perspectives (Liturgical Press – Academic, 2020); the Journal of Religious Ethics; the Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics; and America Magazine; and is forthcoming in the Journal of Moral Theology. She is an active member of Catholic Theological Ethics in a World Church (CTEWC), the College Theology Society (CTS), the American Academy of Religion (AAR), the Society of Christian Ethics (SCE), and the Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA). She is currently co-chairing a five-year seminar at AAR, “Contextualizing the Catholic Sexual Abuse Crisis,” and co-chaired for three years an interest group at the CTSA, “Theology, Sexuality, and Justice: New Frontiers.”

Kevin Brown, Gonzaga University

B. Kevin Brown is Lecturer of Religious Studies at Gonzaga University. He received his Ph.D. in systematic theology from Boston College (with a minor concentration in theological ethics) and his M.A. and B.A. from Loyola Marymount University. Dr. Brown researches primarily in the areas of ecclesiology, attending to questions raised by Catholic sexual abuse, theologies of ministry and discipleship, feminist and liberation theologies, ecumenism, the Second Vatican Council, and the work of Sandra Schneiders. His work has been published in Vision of Hope: Emerging Theologians and the Future of the Church and So You Say You Want a Revolution?: 1968-2018 in Theological Perspective. He currently serves as the editor of the Proceedings of the Catholic Theological Society of America.