• Sara Larson

"The Church Is All Of Us. The Church Is Ours." - Final Thoughts from the Notre Dame Panel

On September 25, the University of Notre Dame hosted a panel of experts for the first event of a year-long forum titled “‘Rebuild My Church’: Crisis and Response.” Journalist Peter Steinfels, survivor and advocate Juan Carlos Cruz, consultant Kathleen McChesney, and Baltimore Archbishop William Lori joined in the conversation moderated by John Allen, editor-in-chief of Crux.

You can read more information about each of the four panelists, as well as a transcript of their opening remarks, in my previous blog posts, beginning here: "Statistics Cannot Be Ignored" - Journalist Peter Steinfels's Remarks on the Abuse Crisis.

After these opening remarks, the forum transitioned into a time of questions and answers, allowing each of the panelists an opportunity to speak extemporaneously in response to questions from the audience and from online viewers. I will not transcribe the entire conversation for you (there are only so many hours in my day!), but I have tried to capture some of the most important points below. To get a better sense of the dialogue, you can view a video recording of the forum here.


In the final part of the evening, the conversation gravitated towards the practical, with questions focused on what the Church can do differently moving forward and how lay people can best be engaged in this work. (I have seen this shift happen over and over at events focused on the abuse crisis; in the end, people want to know what exactly needs to change and what exactly they can do to help.)

In response to questions about what changes are necessary in the Catholic Church, a variety of thoughtful answers were offered by the panelists:

  • Dr. McChesney noted that progress has been made in Church collaboration with law enforcement, but emphasized that ecclesial leaders need to understand that law enforcement, not the Church, is the proper entity to be investigating crimes. She also referenced her work with dioceses and recommended greater attention to careful record-keeping. Finally, McChesney focused on the need to “break the log jam of cases in Rome,” explaining that there are hundreds of cases for laicization and other penal trials that are backed up at the Vatican. She offered strong criticism of the in-fighting among Vatican dicasteries and the lack of professionalism in these processes, which she holds responsible for this unacceptable backlog of cases.

  • Archbishop Lori expressed a need for greater lay involvement with this issue, an involvement that goes beyond “establishing councils and having meetings.” He noted that “the question is - who is sitting around the decision table?” and asserted that responding to this question does affect issues of church governance. More specifically, he mentioned the need for all dioceses to release detailed lists of credibly accused priests and to establish independent, third-party reporting systems for reporting misconduct by bishops. He also encouraged each diocese to strengthen its review board to ensure that this board meets often, is truly independent of the control of the bishop, and releases its own annual report on the state of the diocese.

  • Juan Carlos Cruz focused on the need for collaboration with law enforcement, greater transparency in the Church, publishing lists of predatory priests all over the world, and consultation with lay people. Most importantly, he called for the Church to put survivors first and specifically to be willing to accept the anger of survivors. “Understand when survivors are angry,” he implored, “Survivors have gone through horror.” He also mentioned the need for the Church to create opportunities for survivors to help other survivors.

While these experts offered many ideas for reform in the wider Church, one questioner asked the panelists to bring the suggestions down to a more personal level. “Rather than just sitting and waiting for this to be fixed by the bishops, by the Pope,” she asked, “what actions can members of the Catholic Church do to try to help… and move us forward?” (That is the million-dollar question, isn’t it?)

  • Kathleen McChesney offered the familiar advice to “be educated” about issues of abuse of both children and vulnerable adults; she also highlighted the need for children to be educated so they can be kept safe. Interestingly, McChesney also noted the need to be aware of the limits of pastoral care by priests, cautioning lay people against relying on clerics who are not properly trained for various forms of counseling. She also called upon Catholics to support people who work in ministry, noting that priests need adult friendships and should not be living their lives in isolation. Finally, she encouraged all people to reach out to those they know who have been abused, offering them care, comfort, and a listening ear.

  • Archbishop Lori commented on the need for lay professionals to offer their expertise to the Church and mentioned the value of church leaders hearing voices from those with “totally different perspectives.”

  • Peter Steinfels spoke about the necessity of “independent lay voices who are clearly independent of the bishops and exercise their own public judgements.” He also identified a positive shift he already sees happening, with lay people becoming less deferential to church authority and approaching church leaders with "a more thoughtful, critical attitude.”

  • Juan Carlos Cruz offered the most powerful response to this question (and included what seemed to be a critique of Archbishop Lori’s earlier comments about the “learning curve” he experienced as a bishop): “We cannot wait until the bishops go through their ‘learning curve’ and learn how to listen. We need not only lay people, we need more women in the Church that are trained, prepared… We need more women to break this men’s club, to bring all their talent and their training, to help us heal. We need them… We can’t wait for bishops to finish their learning curve. Survivors need us now.” He encouraged lay people to “keep questioning” and work together to break through the clericalism and elitism of church leaders.

Another issue that Juan Carlos Cruz brought to light in his remarks is the global nature of the Church and therefore the global nature of this crisis. While Steinfels, McChesney, and Lori are understandably focused on the problems and progress in the United States in particular (as is this blog), Cruz brought a broader perspective to this conversation. As a survivor who experienced abuse and persecution from church leaders in Chile and has since traveled throughout the world in his advocacy work, Cruz would not allow these panelists or the audience to focus exclusively on the United States. Cruz asserted that, while abuse rates in the U.S. may have gone down, when we consider sexual abuse in the global Church, “we’ve only seen the tip of iceberg.” He predicted that we will experience continued revelations of abuse through the world - in Chile, Peru, India, the Philippines, and many other countries where abuse is still covered up.

In response to a question about Pope Francis’s motivations for reform, Cruz spoke frankly about Pope Francis’s changed stance on the abuse cases in Chile. Cruz asserted that Pope Francis was terribly misinformed about the abuse allegations in Chile, especially by the conference of Chilean bishops that Cruz referred to as “a band of criminals.” Cruz believes that Pope Francis “had a wake-up call with the bad press,” and that once the Pope saw what was really happening in Chile and heard from survivors first-hand, he did have a genuine change of heart. “I speak to [Pope Francis] very frankly. I don’t mince words,” Cruz explained, “and I truly believe that he gets it.”

Cruz went on to explain that, from his perspective, the real responsibility - and blame - lies with the bishops throughout the world, who nod their head at the Pope but then go back to their dioceses and do not change their behavior. “Why?” Cruz asked, “Because they’re attached to their clericalism, their elitism, and they want to stay in power.”


For me, the most poignant part of the evening came when a young Notre Dame undergrad approached the microphone to ask a question. I found the question itself a powerful statement, so I want to share it with you. Here are her words: “My generation did not cause this problem in the Church, but we are certainly feeling the effects of it. Whether we like it or not, it’s become our job in this crisis to support the survivors, justly punish the abusers, and turn an eye of scrutiny to the leaders. I did not sign up for this, but the choice was taken from me when the priest at my high school was accused. I know that many of my peers have similarly felt the sting of betrayal by men they trusted, and some of them have left the Church because of it. What would you say to this new generation of Catholics, facing this huge responsibility, especially as many of us find ourselves questioning and even departing the Church?”

I am probably almost 20 years older than this young woman, but I felt that she was speaking for me and for many of my peers who have chosen to live as disciples of Jesus Christ in this broken Church.

I did not sign up for this. I did not want it. But I’m here now, and I am not turning back.

In light of this challenging reality, I am grateful for the words of Juan Carlos Cruz, who spoke directly to this young woman with words of encouragement and hope: “Thank you, as a survivor, because your generation is leading all of us now… The Church is all of us… The Church is ours… What you all can do for survivors is unimaginable and it’s great, and for that, I really thank you. So, keep doing it.”


Lord, we did not chose this path, and sometimes, we wish for an easier way.

But most of all, we want to be faithful to you.

Help us to hear your voice and respond with courage to your call.


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