May 01, 2019

What can the laity do to help address the crisis in the Church? The final Healing The Breach of Trust conference, hosted by Catholic University’s Institute for Human Ecology and The Catholic Project, addressed this question.  

“We cannot fix the Church by our own efforts, but we can, like Simon of Cyrene, perhaps do our part to carry some small part of the weight,” said Stephen White, executive director of The Catholic Project at the opening of the conference.

Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron shared his experience of leading the Archdiocese of Detroit’s response to the crisis. He shared certain objectives on what has and will be done with the crisis; such as, answering questions in his community, responding to concerns of new issues, assessing the policies and procedures in place to deal with issues that emerge, and communicating clearly and effectively with the community.

“I could not achieve these aims by acting alone. Past failures demand we bishops include the laity to address the crisis,” says Archbishop Vigneron. “In order to act well I recognize I’m in need of what I call co-agents — others to help me by thinking and acting along with me.”

The archbishop said he also meets with survivors. “I listen. I learn,” he says. “These encounters never stop informing and animating my response to the current crisis.”

During the second panel, John Carr, founder and director of Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, shared his personal reflections as a survivor of the crisis.   

He recommended more lay leadership, and said that  parents should be involved in decision making. He also said that lay leadership should be reflective of the diversity of the Church in order to avoid isolation and clericalism.

“There has to be independent, credible and effective ways for bishops to be reported, investigated and held accountable for their behaviors and abusive powers for their actions, and non-actions,” he said.

Carr continued with the point that survivors have to be at the center of the discussion. Church leaders, he said, need to listen, respond, and act decisively, openly, and quickly to bring accountability.

“The crisis should lead us to challenge our assumptions not just repeat them,” he said. “It should get us out of our ecclesial bunkers where we only talk to people who agree with us and try to find some kind of common ground, some shared experience to work together to renew and reform our church.”

Teresa Pitt Green, founder and director of Spirit Fire, and a survivor of child sexual abuse, also shared her story and addressed ways to help survivors of the crisis.

In order for the lay to take action, Green said, they have to know what the Church’s mission is. She wants people to understand and remember how important priests are for the healing of the Church.

“I know that you are dealing with all the anger, the shock and the betrayal, but I dealt with that 50 years ago. So we’re out of sync a little but I’m telling you, there's a whole lot of joy up ahead if we heal,” she said.

Green suggested the Church develop better protocol and trauma-informed ministry programs for priests and other Catholics to help respond to survivors. “There are these amazing opportunities for Catholics to be talking about this but they don’t know what to say,” she said. “Therapists can only go so far. People around them are able to show their support to survivors — reminding them of their dignity and believing in their healing.”

The final talk by University President John Garvey addressed the question of how to empower the laity. The crisis has damaged the credibility of our ecclesial leadership especially, bishops, he said. But, the work of restoring the trust can't fall entirely on the bishops. It requires the efforts of all the faithful.

“If we’re going to respond effectively and faithfully we have to explore ways that people of God can help the Church become more fully what she is,” said Garvey. “We should resist the temptation to transform the Church into an institution in our own image and service in our own ends however noble that might be, because the Church is not ours.”

Garvey also believes the role of laity can be expanded and developed. We can look into our own families and our own roles for examples.

“Finding ways for greater involvement with lay people — particularly women and married couples — in the formation of seminarians ought to be possible without jeopardizing the integrity of that formation,” he said.

The Catholic Project at Catholic University was organized to, “engage the energies and strengths of the laity and the work of renewal in the Church,” Garvey said. “The clergy genuinely needs and relies on the help the laity can provide and it’s what we’re trying to do here.”

Additional speakers at this daylong event included, Teresa Sullivan, former president of the University of Virginia; Jonathan Reyes, executive director of The Department of Justice, Peace, and Human Development for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB); and George Weigel, distinguished senior fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center.

For more information on this conference, The Catholic Project, and other Catholic University initiatives responding to the sexual abuse crisis, visit