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Saturday, April 20, 2024
The Observer

Observer Editorial: A place for the Church’s thinking

University President Emeritus Fr. Theodore Hesburgh once called Notre Dame “a place where the Church does its thinking.”

Although the origin of Hesburgh’s words have been lost to time, their meaning remains clear: Notre Dame could be a sanctuary for Catholic reflection – a meeting ground for the Church to convene and bring about concrete change.

Next week marks the 14th annual Notre Dame Forum. Titled “‘Rebuild My Church’: Crisis and Response,” the conference aims to spark discussion about the Catholic Church sex abuse crisis brought forth by the 2018 Pennsylvania Grand Jury report.

As the face of Catholic scholarship in the U.S., perhaps Notre Dame is a fitting venue for this discussion by merit of its reputation alone. But there is a far greater reason we need this conference: Many in the tri-campus community feel the wounds of the crisis deeply.

Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s and Holy Cross draw from Catholic communities all over the world, but far too many of us share a similar narrative. We have seen sexual abuse shake our dioceses to their cores, while the Church — whether through bureaucratic failure or blind denial — sat idly by.

The forum presents a unique opportunity for the tri-campus community to gather in honest conversation about the crisis and to speak with a number of guests who have been on the frontlines in addressing it.

But a worthwhile discussion cannot take place without transparency, and transparency demands that we take inventory of the progress Notre Dame — and the Church at large — has made in addressing the crisis and where we still fall short.

Here’s what deserves to be part of the conversation next week:


Accusations of clergy abuse have surfaced here at Notre Dame, too.

According to a South Bend Tribune article, as of 2003, the University was aware of four priests who have been accused of sexual misconduct while working at Notre Dame.

Those priests were thought to be Fr. James Burtchaell, the University’s first provost; Fr. Robert D. Huneke, a former rector; an unnamed priest from Erie, Pennsylvania and another unnamed priest outside of the order of the Holy Cross.


The 2002 Dallas Charter only applies to priests and deacons.

After the “Boston Globe” published an exposé in 2002 chronicling decades of clergy sex abuse and subsequent Church cover-up, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) convened to write the Charter for the Protection of Young People (Dallas Charter). The charter establishes a “zero tolerance” policy for the sexual abuse of minors and outlines standard procedure for sexual abuse response and prevention — but it only holds priests and deacons accountable, leaving the discipline of higher-ranking clergy to the Vatican.


Notre Dame has invited Archbishop William Lori, criticized for his track record resisting greater Church transparency, to speak on the forum’s keynote panel.

Although he is credited with leading Church reform efforts in the past, William Lori, the current archbishop of Baltimore and former bishop of Bridgeport, Connecticut, has made repeated attempts to keep clergy from the public’s scrutiny.

Lori will join four others on a panel titled “The Church Crisis: Where Are We Now?,” which takes place at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center’s Leighton Concert Hall.

The University made no mention of Lori’s controversial past in its Sept. 11 press release announcing the event. This is not the first time Notre Dame has been slow to point the finger at controversial Church figures. Last year, the University decided not to rescind former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s degree until he was officially defrocked, even though an Archdiocese Review Board found the initial allegation of sexual abuse against McCarrick to be “credible and substantiated,” and Pope Francis had already asked for McCarrick’s resignation.

Wednesday’s panel provides students with the rare opportunity to ask Lori himself about his past — and we hope they do.


May saw the introduction of a new Church policy mandating all sexual abuse be reported to the Vatican.

Pope Francis issued a first-of-its-kind law requiring Church leaders to report clergy sex abuse May 9. The mandate came not long after February’s Vatican summit, where Francis convened the Church’s high-ranking officials to discuss the crisis. The law, which went into effect June 1, outlined official provisions for investigating reports of sexual abuse.


While the Church has a long way to go to address abuse, there are examples of dioceses taking steps toward greater transparency and awareness.

Here in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, church authorities published a list of clergy who had been “credibly accused” of sexual abuse. One survivor, who lives in the area, told The South Bend Tribune she felt “vindicated” following the release of the list, though she criticized the diocese for not publishing the names sooner.

The Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report also praised the Diocese of Erie, Pennsylvania, for its new policies in response to the investigation. The changes included: “An expanded set of definitions of child abuse … and the public identification of persons who have been credibly accused of actions ranging from furnishing pornography to direct, sexual assaults of minors,” according to the report.


Notre Dame has taken steps to address the abuse crisis.

Most notably, the University has pledged to set aside $1 million over the next three years to fund research on the abuse crisis. It has also promised to look at ways to train its own graduates in sexual abuse prevention and awareness, evaluate how the University handles sexual misconduct and promote public discussion of the issues — including through this year’s ND Forum.


Notre Dame has sought to create discussion about the crisis in the past.

In 2002, following the Boston Globe’s investigation into clergy sex abuse, then-University President Fr. Edward Malloy created a “Church Study Committee.” The group compiled a 13-page letter with recommendations for addressing the abuse crisis, which it later sent to the USCCB before its annual conference.

The University also hosted a conference to create campus-wide discussion about the abuse crisis, following the USCCB’s Dallas meeting.


We hope all who attend the Notre Dame Forum come with hard questions. Even if the event results in neither solutions nor grand revelations, we believe it to be a worthy effort. In Hesburgh’s words, Notre Dame should be a place where the Church does its thinking.

Kerry Schneeman | The Observer

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.