We don’t know enough about the causes of clergy sexual abuse. One Jesuit initiative is beginning to change that.
After three years of searching archives, surveying Jesuits and the laity, and struggling to honor the stories of survivors of sexual abuse by members of the clergy, we released the final report of Fordham University’s Taking Responsibility initiative on Feb. 9, marking an ending that actually feels like our work is just beginning. While our research was conducted at and frequently focused on the history, impact and prevention of sexual abuse at Jesuit institutions, we believe that our work is relevant to the entire church.
This foundation-funded initiative enabled the development of research projects conducted by 36 scholars at 10 Jesuit universities in the United States (Fordham, Georgetown and Loyola Maryland in the East; Gonzaga and Santa Clara in the West; and Marquette, Xavier, Creighton, Loyola Chicago and Rockhurst in the Midwest) in the fields of history, English, psychology, sociology, theology and religious studies, law, business, and communication. Rather than proposing a unified theory to address this complex issue, participating scholars pursued multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches to topics they identified as most in need of investigation.
We released the final report of Fordham University’s Taking Responsibility initiative on Feb. 9, marking an ending that actually feels like our work is just beginning.
Inspired by Georgetown University’s quest to uncover the historical role of the Jesuit community in the enslavement of African Americans, we dedicated ourselves to recovering the stories of abuse survivors and to ensuring that these survivors remained at the center of our investigations. Our researchers wrestled with findings on sexual trauma and the moral injury of individual survivors and the people in their lives who also suffer from the consequences of abuse.
Several research teams analyzed the specific effects of clericalism and sexual abuse by members of the clergy. Some focused on historical narratives, and others conducted statistical research on struggles experienced by parishioners, as well as their strategies for coping and promoting change. Many identified structural factors pertaining to sex, gender and power that contribute to the formation of clericalist cultures and sexual abuse. To empower laypeople in efforts to combat clericalism and clerical sexual abuse, one research team piloted new pedagogies and spiritualities for both youth and adults, aimed at promoting the graced empowerment of the baptized while working against their sexual exploitation.
The success of prevention efforts depends on, and will only be strengthened by, facing and understanding what has happened in the past.
We also investigated the behavior of individual perpetrators and patterns of corporate malfeasance in terms of institutional coverups, whistleblower practices and new legal strategies of criminal accountability. And we gave particular attention, as we state in our report, to “long-overlooked patterns of sexual abuse in Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and poor communities, suffering from compound infractions of colonialism and injustice.”
The Jesuits and other religious organizations have invested significant effort in training people in practices of safeguarding children, young people, and the vulnerable. One of the main lessons the Taking Responsibility initiative has taught us is that these efforts, as necessary and laudable as they are, cannot stand alone. They need to be complemented by scholarly analysis and historical memory work. In fact, the success of such prevention efforts depends on, and will only be strengthened by, facing and understanding what has happened in the past. In particular, the quest to identify and explain the factors that contribute to sexual abuse in all sectors of society, and specifically among priests (including Jesuits), will continue to require the painstaking investigations of historians and social scientists, in respectful collaboration with survivors, into the narratives and the formative factors in abusers’ lives.
Removing Obstacles to Further Research
In this regard, two challenges encountered by our researchers merit further attention.
Numerous researchers faced obstacles when they tried to gain access to archival materials. Our report concludes that policies concerning the release of records need to be discussed and revised. In particular, Jesuit institutions at all levels should convene “committees of Jesuits, institutional administrators, scholars with recognized research reputations, and victim advocates to discuss institutional policies around archival disclosure” (see Page 57 of our report). Last December the archbishop of Santa Fe, N.M., John C. Wester, announced the establishment of a new archive of clergy sexual abuse documents at the University of New Mexico. This endeavor sets a new standard that dioceses and religious orders, including the Society of Jesus, should consider implementing.
It was also difficult for some researchers to persuade priests, seminarians and laypeople to complete surveys pertaining to clericalism and clergy sexual abuse because bishops, priests, seminary rectors and local lay leaders did not promote them. Nonetheless working with a pool of 300 ordained Jesuits, Jesuits in formation and laypeople, including women religious (no diocesan seminarians and only eight diocesan priests were willing to participate), the Santa Clara research team was able to collect sufficient data to achieve significant discoveries and conclusions—for instance, about authoritarian versus collaborative management styles and about the need for boundaries in pastoral styles. A decisive factor in this project’s success was that the provincial superior of the USA West Province and several Jesuit rectors and formators encouraged Jesuit priests and those in formation to participate.
It was also difficult for some researchers to persuade priests, seminarians and laypeople to complete surveys pertaining to clericalism and clergy sexual abuse.
Likewise, in 2019 the provincial of the Jesuit Province in Spain launched a major interdisciplinary and inter-institutional research initiative called the Jordan Project. The 19-person research team included scholars in the fields of dogmatic theology, philosophy and ethics, canon law and civil law, and psychology. They succeeded in gathering 1,187 survey responses from both Jesuits and laypeople, and they are analyzing those findings now. Both the Santa Clara project and the Jordan Project provide promising examples worth studying by Jesuit provincials, the Jesuit Conference and lay scholars in the United States and Canada as models for future research initiatives.
Reports on Jesuits involved in the sexual abuse of children and young adults have left increasing numbers of people involved in the mission of Jesuit education wounded and disillusioned. These include lay faculty members and staff who are sincerely dedicated to their schools’ Jesuit identity and mission, including some who are not Catholic or not religious. Many of these colleagues, and many students and alumni, have been perplexed, frustrated and bruised by the unwillingness or inability of their Jesuit leaders and colleagues to engage with them forthrightly about this subject.
What, then, does it mean to take responsibility for the scandal of sexual abuse by members of the clergy? This was a question posed by Professor Hille Haker during a private conference held at Fordham for people working on this project in April 2022. Michael Garanzini, S.J., president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, echoed her question, asking: What is the aim of these projects and this undertaking? Because “responsibility” runs in so many complicated directions, “taking responsibility” will require an honest, ongoing exploration and assessment of the myriad issues involved and the contradictions, tensions and new questions that will inevitably surface.
It is noteworthy that Professor Haker chose the name Entangled Responsibility for her project investigating the history of clergy abuse at Loyola University Chicago. When we examine cases of abuse by Jesuits or any sexual abuse in a Jesuit or Catholic institutional setting, as we dig into the historical details and search beyond the personal circumstances to identify and analyze the structural and cultural factors that facilitate these crimes and their coverup, we come to realize that all these elements and people are entangled. This is why our report calls for an expansive, multidimensional approach to responsibility-taking in our Jesuit educational institutions, one that entails a high degree of transparency. Our researchers’ investigations and findings testified to this commitment to fostering shared responsibility by generating greater efforts to grapple with these sensitive subjects among various sectors of our institutions and communities.
The researchers who engaged in our three-year initiative came away with this shared conviction: To address these painful matters adequately will require greater collaboration with Jesuits, with our colleagues in various departments, with Jesuit administrators in our institutions, and with boards of trustees and Jesuit provincial superiors. In particular, we need to find ways for Jesuit and lay members of our institutions to face and engage our “entangled responsibilities” around the abuse crisis together, as collaborators and partners. This requires more than the involvement of lay faculty members and alumni on Jesuit institutional review boards that are already commonplace at the provincial level. It also requires the kinds of attention to deeper structural and cultural factors that our project has sought to advance.
The Taking Responsibility initiative has created inroads to understanding the many factors involved in the scandal of clerical sexual abuse of minors, young people and the vulnerable. To move forward responsibly, we need effective safeguarding measures. But Jesuit leaders and institutions also need to leverage their rich intellectual resources and collaborate with historians and theoreticians to do the equally necessary work of bringing to light, accurately documenting and seeking to understand the causes, consequences and potential paths more deeply and precisely in order to begin to heal the grievous wounds inflicted by sexual abuse in the church.