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“The Church Will Continue To Be Slow To Reform” - Comments and Predictions from Kathleen McChesney

Updated: Oct 23, 2019

Today, we continue my series highlighting the expert commentary presented at the recent Notre Dame forum titled “The Church Crisis: Where Are We Now?” You can read the opening remarks given by the first two panelists here: "Statistics Cannot Be Ignored" - Journalist Peter Steinfels's Remarks on the Abuse Crisis and "I’ll let the experts talk about statistics... I’m going to speak from the heart" - Juan Carlos Cruz.


The third panelist to speak was Dr. Kathleen McChesney, who is widely recognized as a leading expert on the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. McChesney is a former police detective who spent 24 years as an FBI agent, eventually rising to become Executive Assistant Director, the third-highest position at the FBI. In 2002, she was recruited by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to guide the national response to the abuse crisis. She became the first Executive Director of the USCCB’s new Office of Child and Youth Protection and helped establish the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.”


When I first started learning about the history of clerical abuse and leadership failures in the U.S. Catholic Church, Dr. McChesney’s name came up over and over. She has been writing and speaking about these issues in various forums for many years. She even gave a talk at Notre Dame six years ago with a title very similar to that of this recent panel (“Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church: Where are We Now?”). McChesney is also a frequent consultant on child protection for dioceses and other organizations around the world.


Because of her law enforcement background and years of close collaboration with the USCCB and individual bishops, Dr. McChesney brings a unique perspective to this conversation. What I found most interesting was the list of disappointments she has experienced while working on this problem over the course of 17 years. I also appreciated the predictions she made at the end of her presentation, when she outlined a few things she anticipates coming next as this scandal continues to unfold.


You can read my transcript of McChesney’s comments below. A video recording of the entire Notre Dame event is available online here.


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“I want to take my time with you this evening to tell you some of the observations I have made in the nearly two decades of working on this issue, on and off. Just to be clear, I don’t work for the Bishops’ Conference any longer, but I gained a great deal of experience in that role and in the work I do with dioceses and religious communities around the world.


I want to give you a backdrop with regard to my work and the observations I’m going to make tonight, the disappointments I’m going to tell you about that I’ve experienced and that others have experienced, and then I want to make some predictions about what I think will be happening in the near term and the long term.


When I first went to work for the Bishops’ Conference and the Dallas Charter was new and we were very excited about implementing some of the wonderful aspects of the Charter, I talked with many survivors like you (looking at fellow panelist Juan Carlos Cruz), like maybe some of you in the audience, and I remember specifically one man said to me, “Look, you can have all the programs in the world that you want; you can have policies; you can have training; you can have background investigations. You can do all of those things, but until the bishops realize that there has to be true accountability, I and my fellow survivors are not going to heal.”


So, I say that to bring together the first point that I want to make, and that’s about accountability. It is so critical for the men and women who’ve been abused to know that someone is responsible, someone’s taking responsibility for what has happened to them.

The other side of that coin is that if there’s responsibility, there should be credit. And the credit goes to the men and women, the volunteers, the clergy, all the people that have come together in the last few decades to try to get those numbers down to much lower levels of abuse, not only in our Church, but it has had an impact in other youth-serving organizations as well.


The second observation I want to make is that abuse occurs not only by clergy, but by other people in Catholic ministries. People who are abusers are consecrated, lay persons; they’re teachers; they’re volunteers; they’re music ministers. There are people within the entire spectrum of Catholic ministries who do abuse, and we can’t take our eye off the ball in that regard. We have to look at the Church writ large.


There has been good, sufficient support for men and women who have been abused - much more professional, much more pastoral than in years past - but it’s still not enough. There’s still some confusion about how to deal with this 72 year old man who is telling his story for the first time. Should there be outreach? Will we be re-victimizing that man or that woman if we go talk to them and offer them care? It’s something that you have to work case by case, person by person. You can’t lump anyone together in terms of the pastoral support that they need. Some people want to be reconnected to the Church. Some people want nothing to do with the Church.


I’ve observed a serious lack of oversight of clerics in particular over time, and I think one of the key reasons for that is that we expect one bishop - who may have hundreds of priests - to be in touch with them every day and knowing what they’re doing. For some priests, some pastors, their life is very singular and very lonesome, and they don’t see and interact with people who can guide them, who can mentor them, who can observe their behavior. So it’s left to the laity to become knowledgeable and know what sorts of behavior they should be looking at that could be putting people at risk.


On the other side of that coin too is I don’t see enough support for clergy, in terms of their health and wellness. In some dioceses that I work with, there’s not even a person who’s a vicar for clergy or a priest for priests. You need people who can help these men, who sometimes don’t understand what it means to have appropriate adult relationships and how to have healthy social lives.


There has been the cart before the horse on my next point, in terms of formation. Over the last seventeen/eighteen years, there’s been a lot of emphasis on restructuring seminaries and adding the human formation element and emphasizing it much more. In my experience, I think that selection is more important than formation. You can have the best formation programs, the best seminaries in the entire world, but if you have selected the wrong person to go into the seminary, someone who is so troubled, doesn’t know what they want to do, has mental health issues, that person is never going to become a healthy cleric. So to have a healthy presbyterate, you need to start with healthy men.


And then the laity - their contributions have been overlooked in terms of value. The laity have been involved in reducing the number of incidents of abuse for 20-30-40 years, but they’ve acted in sort of a lower level. They’re not out front, but they’re the ones who are teaching, who are doing background investigations. They’re the ones that are pressuring bishops to do more, to meet with men and women who’ve been abused. It’s not an easy thing to sit across from someone who is crying, who is hurting, who is in pain, and to accept that, but they do. And the laity has been a large part of encouraging bishops to be pastoral, to be the shepherds that they should be.


I want to just list for you some things that I have been disappointed about:

  • One of the things that strikes me personally, from having a law enforcement background, is that in 2002, after Spotlight and the crisis and the Dallas Charter, there was really a substantial lack of law enforcement interest in this issue. Now we have 16 state attorneys general looking at these cases, and a lot more emphasis on the abuse that occurred. One of the issues, of course, is that the statute of limitations has passed on many of these cases. But I always wondered, “Where is the law enforcement response?” two decades ago, and it wasn’t there.

  • Similarly there were many recommendations made by the National Review Board, by our office, by lay groups about ways that the Church could move forward. There were a lot of recommendations by men and women who were survivors, and they haven’t been listened to. Now some of those recommendations are being brought up again as if they’re brand new. They’ve been there; they just haven't been acted on.

  • There's been a lack of research into the causes of the cases that have occurred since the Charter. One would think that, since the abuse crisis in 2002 was on the front page of a newspaper in this country for 365 days in a row, that everyone would understand. But there have been cases - not as many, certainly, as in the 60s and 70s - but there have been cases. Why did those happen? Who missed that lesson and why? And where was the oversight of those persons who abused?

  • The failure of the Church to embrace technology and use the data that the Church now has is another disappointment. I hope that the Church can put together the information it does have. There are people out there indicating that they are ministering in the name of the Church, and nobody really knows who they are. There’s not a good Catholic directory; there are not good disclosure lists. Those things are easily done and need to be done in the interest of transparency and accountability.

  • I see a lack of vision in terms of ways to do new vocations and structuring of formation in seminaries. I’d like to really see some sea changes in that regard.

  • And of course, my last disappointment is in the area of issue fatigue and complacency. We can’t let our tiredness, our sadness overtake our passion for continuing to work on these issues.

The last thing I’m going to say - I have five predictions about things that I think we’ll see in the near future:

  • I think that there will continue to be cases against church authorities, bishops probably in particular, for those who are living that were thought to be negligent in terms of how they handled these cases.

  • I think there will be additional scandals, whether they’re financial or sexual, whether they’re in our schools, other ministries, or in our seminaries.

  • I think with the Pope’s recent muto proprio, a harder line on those bishops and church authorities who were negligent in responding to incidents of abuse. I think there will be a continued use of this issue to promote a personal agenda - a conservative agenda, a liberal agenda, whatever it is. A shameful use of what has happened to these men and women.

  • I think that we’re going to see civil, canon, and criminal law changes over time.

  • I think you’re going to see a greater emphasis on vulnerable adults and identifying who those people are.

And I think, as my last prediction, that the Church will continue to be slow to reform. I think that it shouldn’t be an option, but I think that’s sadly the way that the Church works.”


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Note from Sara: I do take issue with Dr. McChesney’s claim that the Church has offered “good, sufficient support for men and women who have been abused” in the years since the Dallas Charter. I do believe this has been the case for some people in some dioceses, especially in more recent years, but I know this is far from a universal experience. I have spoken to many survivors who have had negative experiences when seeking support from their diocese, including some within the past year. We have a long way to go to be able to claim our support is “sufficient,” let alone “good.”


Personally, I was struck by Dr. McChesney’s comment about “issue fatigue and complacency.” I have run into this so many times when speaking with my fellow Catholics about the problem of sexual abuse in our Church - statements like “Can’t we just move on now?” or “Hasn’t this been taken care of already?” I sense a similar “issue fatigue” among even well-intentioned Church leaders, especially those who have been wrestling with these issues for many years.


Yes, we all wish this was over. That every person in our Church was now safe. That every secret had been revealed. That all the guilty had been held accountable. That every survivor was believed and healed.


But we’re not there yet. Not by a long shot.


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Loving God, help us not to be overcome by frustration, tiredness, or sadness.

Give us your strength to continue the work that needs to be done.

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©2020 by Sara Larson