Identifying and Reforming Institutions in Jesuit Schools and Universities That Foster Sexual Abuse and Its Concealment


Project Description

This project began with a simple question: “Why is it that the Catholic Church seems unable to respond effectively to the sexual abuse crisis?” When we say that the Catholic Church has been unable to respond effectively, we do not mean to deny progress. There are dioceses, provinces, and Catholic organizations that have improved the implementation, oversight, and enforcement of norms to protect minors. Progress, however, depends on the commitment, knowledge, and character of a local ordinary or superior and can change with a change in leadership. Moreover, there has been little progress in terms of the sexual abuse of non-minor/other vulnerable people such as adult students, staff, and seminarians.

How we think about the church has an impact on how we understand the problem and the types of solutions we can envision. The three models of the church in Lumen Gentium—namely, church as mystery, people of God, and hierarchy—are not useful for understanding systemic and institutional problems. The council framed these models in terms of pastoral care. If we use just these categories, every problem looks like a pastoral problem. Certainly, sin is an aspect of the crisis, but it does not explain why the problem of sexual abuse is so pervasive and persistent except insofar as sin can be invoked to explain all the evils of the world. Starting from “sin” obscures the institutions, structures, and systems contributing to the crisis.

We started by considering the Catholic Church and the Jesuits in terms of the institutional model of the church or what Lumen Gentium identified as the human element of the church. The findings of The Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse provided us with an inventory of conditions that make sexual abuse more likely and that discourage reporting. Some of the most significant factors involved how organizations are perceived as a source of authority, the importance of reputation, and the emphasis placed on loyalty. Organizations that emphasize confidentiality or privacy inhibit reporting, particularly when there is no feedback as to the results of reporting.

We also employed institutional analysis, which comes from the field of economics, to study how formal and informal rules guide decisions related to discipline. Institutional analysis considers how organizations fall into unproductive paths from institutions, understood as rules, that initially provide a benefit but impede future progress by creating incentives to maintain them. Our goal was to identify formal (written) and informal (unwritten) rules that perpetuate the problem of sexual abuse and that undermine reform initiatives over time. Both formal and informal institutions are internalized, customary, and normative.

To identify how these institutions influence disciplinary decisions, we interviewed 39 people who work in Catholic or Jesuit schools and universities, dioceses, seminaries, and in national Catholic youth organizations. Though our focus has been on Jesuit organizations, we also interviewed people who are members of other religious orders. We were fortunate that we found thirteen Jesuits, most of whom have held significant leadership positions, to participate in the study.

Key Findings

We learned that the rules governing disciplinary decision-making are consistent in Catholic educational organizations, religious orders, and dioceses. Four significant findings are:

  1. Pastoral care principles influence disciplinary processes. There is an emphasis on being patient and merciful that allows for inferior performance and outright misbehavior. As a member of a religious order told us, there is confusion between what is simply sinful and what is criminal. One Jesuit noted, “So, there is a discipline, but St. Ignatius talks about the Society as a mother and I find the Society is a pretty patient, tolerant mother. [You can] get away with a lot as a Jesuit.”
  2. One “rule”—to keep problems quiet—is commonly framed in pastoral categories. Jesuits emphasize the importance of charitable discretion and profess a desire to save people from embarrassment. As a result, the theme of people “disappearing” was a recurring motif. One subject recounted:

First, I was told that as someone who’s a professor and an administrator this [Jesuit] shouldn’t be teaching undergraduates. So, it’s okay for him to teach graduate courses? I was like, “Why?” And no information and then he disappeared… you know it’s not unusual for an employee just to disappear and for nobody to know why they were dismissed.


The lack of information about disciplinary matters and the silence surrounding these issues create a disincentive for people to report problems. Our research suggests that disincentives to reporting foster the conditions that make sexual abuse more likely.

3. We found that there are different disciplinary processes for Jesuits, faculty, and staff in Jesuit schools and universities. This creates ambiguity as to how reports will be received or handled. Though Jesuits report that they do not involve themselves in school or university decisions, the interviews with faculty members and administrators showed otherwise. A department chair at a Jesuit university reported,

“When we had a Jesuit we were having problems with there was a lot of interest coming from the Jesuit residents and from the president’s office and from others about why are you having a problem with this person.”

We received similar reports from other Jesuit high schools and universities that indicate the rule is you must treat Jesuits differently.

4. Jesuits report that they find it difficult to balance the rules of the order with the policies of the schools and universities when they had oversight of other Jesuits in those organizations. One Jesuit remarked,

“We’re not going to deal with each other in a legalistic way because we don’t have that kind of a rule in place…. if it were another Jesuit reporting to me, I would have to straddle the two, as a brother, and at the same time, as one bound to the institution, so it’s not as easy or clear cut.”

These and some of our other findings suggest that the research should be extended to include women’s religious orders, diocesan priests, and Catholic organizations that serve vulnerable populations like refugees and migrants. Though we did interview some people from Asia, Africa, and South America, there needs to be more research to see if these rules are present in other cultural contexts.

Principal Investigator

Dean of Graduate School of ReligionC. Colt Anderson is full professor of Christian spirituality in the Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education at Fordham University, where he served as academic dean from 2012 to 2017. While much of his work concentrates on the history of medieval reform movements and how they effected change in the face of opposition, he also has a longstanding interest in the intersections between religion and politics, spirituality and leadership, and institutional organizational psychology and pastoral ethics. He has written three books, including The Great Catholic Reformers: From Gregory the Great to Dorothy Day (Paulist Press, 2007), which won a 2008 Catholic Press Association Award, and co-edited a fourth. He has published numerous articles and chapters on reform, ecclesiology, and ecumenism for Theological Studies, Brill, Catholic University of American Press, and others.

Contributing Researchers

Henry Schwalbenberg

Henry M. Schwalbenberg holds a Ph.D. in economics from Columbia University and is a faculty member of the economics department at Fordham University. He is the director of Fordham University’s graduate program in international political economy and development. Over the years his published research has encompassed international economic policy, the political economy of economic reform,  emerging markets, foreign aid, Philippine economic history, and Catholic social teaching. Currently his research focuses on multidimensional measures of global poverty. Schwalbenberg has traveled widely and is the winner of Fulbright U.S. Scholar awards to Micronesia and to South Africa.

Michael Pirson

Michael Pirson joined the Gabelli School of Business as an associate professor of management systems in 2008. A scholar of humanistic management, which holds that business and commerce ought to advance human dignity and society, Dr. Pirson helped to establish an undergraduate sustainable-business concentration at Fordham. He teaches courses such as Social Entrepreneurship, Fundamentals of Management and Principles of Management, and his work spans the undergraduate and graduate levels. Dr. Pirson is the social entrepreneurship track chair for the Oikos-Ashoka Global Case Writing Competition in Social Entrepreneurship. He is also a founding partner of the Humanistic Management Network, an organization that brings together scholars, practitioners and policymakers around the common goal of creating a ‘life-conducive’ economic system. In that capacity, he is the co-editor of the Humanism in Business book series, published by Palgrave-McMillan.