Notre Dame funds research, raises awareness on sex abuse crisis

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SOUTH BEND, Indiana – As the US Catholic Church’s “summer of hell” drew to a close in Oct. 2018, where major revelations of abuse toppled some of the most senior clergy in the nation, the president of the University of Notre Dame felt the school needed to do something.

“We must look at Notre Dame’s own history, actions and policies and also look for ways in which it can assist the Church,” Holy Cross Father John Jenkins said in a statement. “We will not single-handedly solve problems, but we can contribute to understanding, healing and constructive change.”

In that same statement, Jenkins established two task forces to produce recommendations on what the University could do.

The task forces delivered several recommendations to Jenkins, including holding public events to “educate and stimulate” discussion about the abuse crisis; providing funding to research projects that address issues emerging from the crisis; encouraging and then sharing academic research into the issue, especially making use of Notre Dame’s McGrath Institute for Church Life and de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture; training graduates for effective leadership in the Church during and beyond the crisis; and redoubling efforts to “create a culture of accountability and transparency around sexual assault and misconduct” on Notre Dame’s campus, whether perpetrated by laypersons or clergy.

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On Feb. 20, Jenkins outlined the university’s response to these recommendations in an email sent to members of the Notre Dame community.

Over the past six months, Jenkins has invited leaders on the issue of sex abuse in the Church to speak with the campus community at multiple events, including Archbishop Charles Scicluna, who has investigated sex abuse on behalf of the Vatican.

(Crux participated in some of these events.)

Jenkins also mentioned an upcoming conference hosted by Notre Dame’s McGrath Institute for Church Life which will focus on the idea of “co-responsibility,” and the relationship between lay and ordained people.

As a response to the task forces’ second recommendation, Jenkins flexed Notre Dame’s considerable research muscles, and awarded $1 million in grants to faculty members studying topics related to sex abuse. The funding supported 11 different projects, with disciplines ranging from more secular subjects such as law and psychology, to more Church-focused, such as theology and music.

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Jenkins said in the email that many of those projects will “lead to public events on campus” in the coming year, but did not specify exactly how the research will be unveiled.

On the campus front, Jenkins was positive, noting that Notre Dame’s regular survey of staff reported “encouraging” results.

However, Jenkins said the survey revealed there was room for improvement in “encouraging employees on campus to speak up, whether to express concerns or share ideas about how to work together better, and to ensure that managers respond appropriately when they do.”

Aaron Benavides, a current junior at the university who served on one of the task forces, said he agreed most with Jenkins when it came to creating a better campus culture around misconduct.

“Supporting a culture of ‘call it out when you see it’ is essential,” he told Crux in an email. “If we want to take a bold stance on the issue of sexual abuse, it needs to start with us ensuring that the processes here on our campus do all that is necessary to support survivors.”

As for the the university’s role as a place of formation, Jenkins pointed to three existing graduate programs which seek to balance academic learning with pastoral skills, and are designed to prepare students for ministry in the Church.

Jenkins concluded his email by urging community members not to frame clergy sex abuse as something to “resolve” or “put behind” them. Rather, he asked them to pray for conversion even as the school works to stop abuse and heal the Church.

“We should never tire of listening to, walking with and supporting survivors,” he said. “For the Church institutionally, but perhaps for all of us in some way, there is the possibility for greater humility… greater honesty about our failings and a deeper commitment to repentance and reform.”


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