August 18, 2018

To the Catholic University Community,

There are times when words fail. This is one of those times. What I read in the Pennsylvania grand jury report released this week is distressing beyond words.

The report, which summarized the findings of an 18-month investigation into allegations of sexual abuse by clergy in Pennsylvania, revealed terrible acts carried out by priests of the Catholic Church abusing young and trusting children. The investigation reported that some 1,000 children were abused during the period covered by the investigation.  According to Pennsylvania’s Attorney General, more survivors continue to contact his office. I pray that these outrages were not perpetrated in other states. But I am concerned that further inquiries will uncover similar cases.

As President of The Catholic University of America, I have taken great pride in the fact that we are the bishops’ university, the national university of the Catholic Church.  Despite what I read this week, I continue to do so.

That said, I have to admit that I am at a loss to understand how such unspeakable evil has been allowed to fester at the heart of the Church. It appears clear that some bishops shuffled priests around and devoted their energies to managing the Church’s image, rather than caring first for the safety of their flocks. Meanwhile faithful Catholics have left the Church, and her teaching has lost authority in our culture.

The report covers a long period of time and the activities of many clerics, including Cardinal Donald Wuerl when he was bishop of Pittsburgh from 1988-2006. I will not address in detail the particulars concerning Cardinal Wuerl, now archbishop of Washington and, by virtue of that office, our chancellor.  The grand jury report includes a number of cases where he refused to return priests to parishes after they were accused of abuse. But the thrust of the report against Pennsylvania’s bishops is that abuse occurred over many years, and was in many instances facilitated, ignored, or covered up — a gross breach of trust with every innocent victim and with the faithful.

About 800 years ago, in a dusty church on the edge of Assisi, St. Francis heard the command to “rebuild my Church, which is in ruins.”  I don’t know that the Church is in ruins, but the present situation feels more like it than anything I have experienced.

The question in the hearts of all the faithful, including our priests and bishops, is what to do now.  Let there be no misunderstanding. There need to be stronger reporting protocols and firmer discipline.  But procedures will not substitute for repentance and spiritual renewal.

There is a way forward. I want to emphasize to all of you — students, parents, alumni — the responsibility the laity have, now more than ever, to serve the Church. This is not a problem the bishops can solve on their own. Though most of them are good and holy men, the actions detailed in the grand jury report have damaged the reputations of all. They will need our help and our insistence on accountability and high standards.

We could take as a model St. Catherine of Siena, a doctor of the Church who famously wrote to Pope Gregory XI, demanding that he “intervene to eliminate the stink of the ministers of the Holy Church; pull out the stinking flowers and plant scented plants, virtuous men who fear God.”

The laity must step forward with prayer, energy, and resolve. We need the laity’s perspective, expertise, judgment, and prayer — and the pressure that comes from having been burned more than once.  We need policies and structures that make it hard to evade responsibility for such crimes, and we must examine carefully the processes by which we recruit, prepare, nourish, and monitor the men who present themselves as candidates for the priesthood.

For those who are students here at Catholic University, the Church is experiencing a moment of real crisis.  I encourage you to prepare yourselves to take on key roles in rebuilding Christ’s Church. Pray fervently for survivors.  And pray for religious vocations; encourage men and women to consider such vocations as part of the Church’s renewal, joining the many virtuous clergy who continue to serve.  And decide how you can best serve.

As president, I am considering with the Board of Trustees and with my staff how best to put our resources at the service of the Church.  I commit myself and this University to the process of renewal. We cannot rule out any response or corrective measure. I look forward to discussing particulars with the entire University community in the months to come.

Before I close, I want to continue to encourage any survivors of abuse to contact your home diocese or the Archdiocese of Washington’s Office of Child and Youth Protection, which offers resources and confidential support to any who have suffered from abuse and who seek help. Phone: 301-853-5328, web:

As members of the laity, and also as priests and religious, we are all critical members of the Church and we are responsible for the faith.  Pray for the strength and grace to take on this great challenge.


John Garvey