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Voices of Trinity: Clergy Sex Abuse Crisis


(Cardinal Donald Wuerl speaking at the dedication of the Payden Center in 2016)

In the last week, Catholics in the Archdiocese of Washington have been processing sad and shocking news.  Pope Francis has accepted the resignation of Cardinal Donald Wuerl, a retirement hastened by the release of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report in July that revealed hundreds of cases of clergy sex abuse in Pittsburgh during the years that Bishop Wuerl was the prelate there.  Cardinal Wuerl has acknowledged that he did not handle all of the cases as well as he might have, and he asked the Pope to accept his resignation (originally submitted two years ago when he turned 75) as a statement of accountability.  While I have said in several places that I thought it appropriate and necessary for Cardinal Wuerl to resign, I did so with sadness since I also thought he was a great leader for the Washington Archdiocese and he was very good to Trinity.  But sometimes, great leaders also have to step aside as a way to move institutions forward, especially in a crisis era.

Then, early this week, the Archdiocese of Washington released the names of 31 priests who were “credibly accused” of sex abuse in years past.  All of this comes in the aftermath of the shocking revelations this past summer concerning former cardinal Theodore McCarrick who rose to the highest levels of Church leadership even as, apparently, some people in the hierarchy knew about his abusive misconduct.  I have written several blogs on these topics and last week I gave a talk at Georgetown University on how the laity must move forward with the Catholic Church in crisis.

As part of our campus survey about the widespread problem of sexual violence, with parts of the survey already presented previously on this blog, we posed a multi-part question about the crisis in the Catholic Church — see the question below and answers from the Trinity campus community:  (Because there was almost no statistical difference among the response percentages from different campus groups, the statistical results posted below are for ALL 201 respondents, with comments identified by group):

Revelations continue to come out about a major scandal of clergy abuse of children and adults in the Catholic Church. Church leaders are struggling to respond to this crisis effectively. Please provide your opinion about issues in this crisis and possible solutions:

matrix survey answersComments reflecting on these questions:

  • Professional Student comment:  I don’t know if the fact that priests are unable to marry really affects the existence of abuse. Even if priests were allowed to marry, abuse usually has to do with taking advantage of power.
  • Faculty/Staff comment:  I don’t know if the fact that priests are unable to marry really affects the existence of abuse. Even if priests were allowed to marry, abuse usually has to do with taking advantage of power.
  • CAS Student comment:  I believe priests should be able to marry. It is God who gave sexual desire to all humans and allowed for each one to have a partner to accompany in marriage. Not letting priests marry is suppressing their rights as a human being, and forcing them to act like creatures without sexual drive. This is impossible being a human and unless in seclusion it is bound that they will make mistakes or commit sexual crimes one day.
  • Professional student:  Abuse of children is a criminal offense and should be prosecuted. For old cases, the church should be providing reparations to victims for counseling and other support. Lay people need more power within the church, as the current leadership has shown it is not trustworthy or accountable. The celibacy rule is archaic. However, I don’t know if allowing priests to marry necessarily has anythingto do with child abuse, because abuse happens in all settings.
  • CAS Student:  The fact that men of God are allowed to abuse children blows my mind. I definitely think this should be addressed because there is no logical way to defend abuse or covering up abuse. This
    goes directly against religious principles.
  • Faculty/Staff:  Wow! As an ordained member of the Catholic clergy, I have very strong opinions about many of these questions that are on conflict with what my Bishop and others would want me to say. But some comments. Regarding old cases, I strongly believe that they should and must be publicized. At this point the truth, no matter how hurtful and disturbing must prevail for the sake of the survival of the church and the trust and respect of it members, and the trust and respect of individuals of other faiths. Much of the church’s practices about celibate priests, the roles of women in the church, and the distinctions between lay and ordained when it comes to church governance are rooted in antiquated and erroneous understandings of what it means for humans to be human as male and female, and for God to be God in whose image we humans are created as female and male.
  • Professional Student:  I believe clergy should be held accountable for crimes. It is not acceptable for abuse to be covered. Crimes and coverups stain the church and may actually turn people away from the faith. One thing is certain, we are all leaving this world one day and will face judgment.
  • Faculty/Staff:  Had there been more women in leadership this would have been handled a lot differently…there has a been a long standing argument that priests should be allowed to marry. But not sure if that would have prevented the widespread abuse of children.
  • CAS Student:  As a Catholic, I would like to, firstly, apologize for those sexual abuses because since Catholics are one church, we as a community, should be held ask for forgiveness. Next, I also believe that we ought to pray to give Pope Francis the ability to effectively get rid of sexual misconduct in the Catholic Church.
  • Faculty/Staff:  These three points for change, namely marriage option for priests, the ordination of women, and lay people involvement in leadership in the church are all topics of interest, however, I prefer to separate them from the topic of sexual abuse, especially the abuse of children. Whether bishops should be removed from their posts is an issue that is taken case by case, and should specify who removes the bishop from his post. The church needs to structure this and the church removes a bishop from his job, not the police.
  • Professional student:  I firmly believe that if you witness a crime or someone confesses their crime to you, that you are just as responsible as them. Anyone who supports a criminal in hiding any heinous act is guilty in my eyes. For years, women and men have been shamed into hiding their abuse. They fear that no one will believe them, or their abuser tricks them into thinking it’s a natural occurrence. It is my personal belief that regardless of what we were wearing, drinking, or where they were hanging out is NEVER an excuse for a human being to be a target of sexual assault. This type of shame keeps children, teens, and adults from sharing their stories, but once they are brave enough to share, they should be given the same amount of respect and support as someone who was harmed yesterday.
  • CAS student:  Reporting sexual assault should be mandatory at any level of work, whether is be teachers, in the workplace, doctors, etc. It should not matter who or what you do. Reporting sexual assault on
    children should not even be questioned. They have little to no voice, so they will not be heard. But,
    it is time for us to step up and do what is right for them.
  • Faculty/Staff:  I wonder if the Catholic Church could “take a page” from the ANC and create a Truth and Reconciliation Commission on sexual abuse.
  • CAS Student:  I believe that if someone covers the crimes of another then they’re just as guilty as the person who committed the crime. The church needs to get rid of all those who covered up a crime and committed the crimes. They all need to be prosecuted and face jail time. Facing sanctions isn’t enough. They need to be brought to justice for making children go through what they went through. The people who committed these crimes are individuals we are told we can trust. People we go to for some kind of emotional comfort and they clearly took advantage of their positions.
  • Faculty/Staff:  The most sure way to reinforce an abuse of power is to fail to change the power structure.
  • CAS Student:  I believe that religious sexual repression is unhealthy and leads to preversions within a culture of denial and deceit. Being able to engage in a healthy sexual relationship is a human need. Without that ability there is no way to channel sexual energy in a healthy way.
  • Faculty/Staff:  A system run by men without transparency cannot heal itself.

Thanks to all who participated in this survey!

Next up:  Your comments on what a Trinity symposium on sexual violence should include, and also, your thoughts on Trinity’s policies and resources for sexual assault and harassment.

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: