October 25, 2018

Catholic University students gathered this month for a series of discussions exploring the recent sexual abuse crisis within the Catholic Church. Over the course of three separate nights, faculty speakers and students discussed the impact of sexual trauma, the history of the sexual abuse crisis in the Church, positive steps that have been taken for Church reform, and the ways in which students’ faith may have been affected by the ongoing crisis.

“We had heard from many students in particular that they were struggling with how to make sense of the sexual abuse by clergy,” said Melissa Grady, an associate professor and clinical chair for the National Catholic School of Social Service who helped plan the first discussion. “We wanted to provide a forum where CUA community members could learn more about sexual abuse, debunk some myths about it, understand some of the systemic issues related to the abuse within the Church, and create a space where people could process how their faith has been shaken by these events, as well as ideas as to how to move forward.”

The first talk discussed sexual abuse, including common reactions to sexual abuse, myths versus facts about people who abuse, and how loved ones can support those who have experienced abuse. The second talk addressed the Church as an institution and the systemic issues related to abuse. The final talk in the series discussed some of the structures in place now that will help to reform leadership’s ability to assist victims, and ways to restore trust in the Church when many individuals’ faith foundations are shaken.

Throughout the three nights, the panelists offered different perspectives as to how they have experienced and coped with the current crisis. Emmjolee Mendoza Waters, associate director of Campus Ministry and Community Service, told attendees that she felt tired, embarrassed, and fearful after hearing news of the sex abuse in the church. She also said that not letting those feelings get to her has required work. Since her relationship with God has always been influenced by a relationship with the poor, she has refocused on charity to repair her faith.

Susan Timoney, associate dean of undergraduate studies and director of the Certificate in Pastoral Ministry in the School of Theology and Religious Studies, spoke at two of the three events. She expressed her “great sadness” in the Church, but she said that like Mendoza Waters’ focus on poverty, she has focused on the Gospel, and urged people not to become complacent as the Church works to heal itself.

The panel discussions included faculty members from the School of Theology and Religious Studies and the NCSSS, and staff from the Student Counseling Center and Campus Ministry. Each of the sessions opened and closed with a prayer led by Rev. Jude DeAngelo, O.F.M. Conv., University Chaplain and director of Campus Ministry, and after brief presentations by the facilitators, were structured to encourage open discussion.

Father Jude emphasized the need to constantly engage with survivors and listen to their voices and led a prayer for “a brighter day when brave men and women can come forward with their stories and be respected.” He also encouraged students to reach out to him and other campus ministers with any requests they had for further discussions or suggestions for future events.

At the end of the third talk, students wrote letters to a lay participant at the Synod of Bishops and asked him to share them with the American bishops at the Synod. The letters outlined their thoughts and suggestions on what could be done to continue the process of healing in their home dioceses.