"Finding Reasons for Our Hope" Message Echoed at Georgetown Conference

April 24, 2019 / By: Michelle Rash
Georgetown Conference April 2019
(From L to R) Professor Lisa Schiltz, Fr. Daniel Griffith, Thomas Wheeler, Professor Hank Shea

During the spring 2019 semester, the Murphy Institute offered three event in its series “Finding Reasons for Our Hope: Addressing the Clergy Sex Abuse Crisis in the Catholic Church”.  This series, co-sponsored by the University of St. Thomas Office for Mission and Department of Theology, was born from the need of response to the seemingly ever-emerging news of indiscretion and mishandling by those in the upper levels of the Church’s hierarchy.  The “Finding Reasons for Our Hope” series aims to explore responses to the crisis from multiple facets and provide steps forward as the Church reels from this tragedy.

The resulting conversations from this event series surrounded topics of restorative justice and victim-survivor focused healing exercises, the increasingly vital role of laity within the Church, and the role that law plays in responding to the clergy sex abuse crisis.  The final installment of the spring semester line up was the April 8 event “What is the Role of Law in Addressing the Clergy Sex Abuse Crisis?”.  This program hosted guest panelists Thomas Johnson, partner at Gray Plant Mooty law firm and volunteer ombudsperson for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis; Timothy O’Malley, director of Director of Ministerial Standards and Safe Environment for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis; and Dr. Kathleen McChesney, former Executive Director of the USCCB Office of Child Protection and current CEO of Kinsale Management Consulting with Professor Hank Shea as moderator. 

The following day, all of the panelists and a number of other University of St. Thomas Law community members travelled to from Minneapolis Washington DC to attend a day-long, invitation-only conference on the same topic, hosted by Georgetown Law Center and the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life.  Representing the School of Law at this conference were Professor Lisa Schiltz, co-director of the Murphy Institute; Adjunct Professor Hank Shea; Wenger Family Fellow Fr. Daniel Griffith; and Thomas Wheeler, 3L and Murphy Student Scholar.  Following his time at Georgetown, Wheeler had this to say:

As an aspiring attorney who grew up hearing about the sexual abuse crisis, it was enlightening to learn about the crisis from attorneys, social workers, clerics, victim-survivors, and many others who dealt first-hand with the abuse crisis from many diverse perspectives. And I learned a lot. Although most of the conference is confidential, I have three takeaways to share. First, many victim-survivors still need healing. The Catholic Church is called to serve people at the margins of society. And victim-survivors are at the margins—they have been abused by people within the Church, alienating them from the Church and disabling some of them from participation in society. For the Church to move forward, it must proactively reach out to heal those harms. Second, it is important to have perspective—the United States comprises only 6% of the global Church. Because the global Church is so large, and because the U.S. composes such a small percentage of it, the Vatican may not respond as quickly as the U.S. would like it to. Even so, the local Church should not be discouraged; attorneys can help the U.S. Church find ways to address the harms of the past and become a model for the global Church. Finally, data is desperately needed. The foremost theme that emerged from the conference is the need for data—What prevention programs are effective? What are best practices for healing? What are current abuse rates within each parish? And many more. In short, for scholars who care about the future of the Catholic Church, the time is ripe for us to roll-up our sleeves and start researching. All in all, this brief commentary does little to relate all that I learned, but it is a start. And sometimes that is all that is needed.

St. Peter urges the early Christian community to “always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope.”  The “Finding Reasons for Our Hope” event series will continue into the 2019-2020 academic year to further develop our explanation as the Church grapples with harm done and strives forward.  While there is much healing needed and reform to be done in response to the clergy sex abuse crisis, leaders are emerging who have already begun these processes.  Initiatives in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and Georgetown University are some of many and, as noted by Wheeler, an essential start toward healing.


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