In July 2020, Fordham led the creation of a project called Taking Responsibility, an interdisciplinary initiative aimed at addressing the Catholic Church’s ongoing sexual abuse crisis.

The project was spurred by a 2018 report by the Society of Jesus that publicly disclosed the names of its members who were credibly accused of sexually abusing minors, as well as a report that year by a Pennsylvania grand jury that found similar findings in diocesan priests. It was funded by a $1 million gift from a private donation.

On Thursday, Jan. 26, the group released its final report, featuring research projects conducted by 18 teams from 10 Jesuit universities. In addition to Fordham, the initiative included lay and clergy faculty from Creighton, Gonzaga, Georgetown, Loyola Chicago, Loyola Maryland, Marquette, Rockhurst, Santa Clara, and Xavier universities.

The research projects addressed topics connected to the Society of Jesus, but were not limited strictly to it. There was often overlap with other parts of the Roman Catholic Church, such as specific parishes. They covered six themes: Jesuits and Jesuit Education; Education; Institutional Reform; Moral Injury and Spiritual Struggle; Race and Colonialism; and Survivors and Survivor Stories.

In addition to team projects, the initiative featured a three-day conference hosted at Fordham in April 2022 as well as eight webinars, four of which were devoted to historically marginalized U.S. communities.

Bradford Hinze, Ph.D., the Karl Rahner Professor of Theology and director of the initiative, said after two and half years, he is more impressed than ever with how much time and energy scholars have devoted to try to address past wrongs and prevent future ones. Their dedication has been “a bit overwhelming,” given how painful the subject is, but is also a source for optimism.

“My big take away is that we need to find ways of building greater relationships of collaboration and more transparency,” he said, “because here we have a lot of lay people—not all are lay people, but most are—who are committed to the Jesuit identity and mission.”

That commitment manifested itself in reports that varied from one about an individual abuser by the team at Creighton University to one examining the best way to tell survivors’ stories by Georgetown University’s Gerard J. McGlone, S.J. A report from Fordham professor C. Colt Anderson, Ph.D., that focused on reforming Jesuit schools noted that “pastoral care principles influence disciplinary processes.”

“There is an emphasis on being patient and merciful that allows for inferior performance and outright misbehavior,” he wrote.

“As a member of a religious order told us, there is confusion between what is simply sinful and what is criminal.”

Key Findings and Recommendations

The report includes six key findings and specific recommendations for learning and action.

The first of the group’s findings is that there is “a divide emerging in research and practice between those focused primarily on “safeguarding” and those focused on what the group is calling “historical memory work.” Safeguarding is focused on preventing present and future abuse, while historical memory work produces research on what happened in the past, in many cases performing a very close analysis of instances of abuse.

Hinze said the group chose to emphasize the importance of historical memory work in response to the forward-facing nature of the Society of Jesus’ most recent Universal Apostolic Preferences, which are in essence the religious order’s list of priorities. He noted that representatives from the Society of Jesus in Rome had been very cooperative, but the group still felt the need to highlight the importance of looking to the past.

“The Apostolic preferences all aim to start from right now and look forward. But if you only do that, you don’t really spend time pondering, reflecting upon, and truly meditating on what were the causes and contributing factors that led up to this, and what were the historical, institutional, and cultural repercussions,” he said.

Another finding highlights the fact that although the first sexual abuse cases in the United States were widely reported as early as 2002, very little research has been done to examine how much abuse was committed against Black, Latin American, Asian, Pacific Islander, and Native American populations.

Fordham Faculty Perspectives

Bryan N. Massingale, S.T.D., the James and Nancy Buckman Chair in Applied Christian Ethics at Fordham, contributed in this area; his study, “Clergy Sexual Abuse in African American Communities,” will be published in October. He surveyed the literature about the sexual abuse crisis to see how many church dioceses tracked the race and ethnicity of survivors and found that only one did, and it only started doing so in 2015.

This is a glaring omission, he said.

“We know for a fact that in many cases, dioceses and religious orders deliberately sent priests with problematic histories into Latino and Black communities, precisely because these communities would be the least likely to report instances of abuse,” he said.

It’s for this reason, Massingale said, that although 4% of American Catholics are Black, it’s fair to assume that more than 4% have experienced sexual abuse. Compounding the problem, he said, is the fact that Black people may not relate to the ways others are processing their abuse. In the course of his research, he spoke informally with two Black men who’d experienced abuse, and discovered that they refused to accept the popular “victim survivor” label.

“They said ‘I’m not surviving anything. I’m coping.’ And it struck me that maybe another reason why we need to pay attention to this is because even the language we use doesn’t resonate universally across human communities,” he said.

Lisa Cataldo, Ph.D., associate professor of mental health counseling and spiritual integration at Fordham’s Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education, said her future teaching will forever be informed by the work she did with the initiative. In her research project “Bearing Witness When ‘They’ Are Us: Toward a Trauma-Informed Perspective on Complicity, Moral Injury, and Moral Witnessing,” Cataldo attempted to answer a question she asked herself when the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report was published: Why am I still shocked?

“We’ve been hearing about this since 2002, if not before,” she said.

“I realized that this cycle of being OK, and then being overwhelmed with shock and horror, and then having the feeling sort of recede into the background, is the same cycle that a trauma survivor experiences.”

No solution to a trauma-based problem can work unless it addresses the trauma, she said.

“All the safeguarding that has been put in place has been very effective, and it’s absolutely vitally important. I’m not discounting any of that, but you will never heal without addressing the trauma, and that means having accountability, responsibility, dialogue, honesty, and truth telling,” she said.

“It’s like closing the barn door after the horses are out.”

Telling It Like It Feels

Cataldo suggested that a crucial part of the healing process should involve people who Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit dubbed the “moral witnesses.”

“In order to really stand up for and call attention to the suffering imposed on one group by another group of people, the moral witness has to be someone who speaks the truth,” she said.

“But the moral witness doesn’t just tell it like it is. The moral witness tells it like it feels. To be a moral witness, the person needs to have been either a survivor themselves or have something at stake. You have to have skin in the game.”

The participants in Taking Responsibility fit that bill, she said, by virtue of working for Catholic institutions and working to highlight the painful truth.

The project has inspired Cataldo to do more herself. This fall, she will oversee the unveiling of GRE’s Advanced Certificate in Trauma-Informed Care program. Importantly, she said, the certificate program explores how spirituality can be both a balm for people healing from trauma and a shield that prevents them from acknowledging their own trauma.

“It’s very important to understand how unexamined religious practices and religious structures like the Catholic Church can sometimes re-traumatize or compound the trauma of people if they don’t understand how trauma and faith intersect,” she said.


Patrick Verel is a news producer for Fordham Now. He can be reached at [email protected] or (212) 636-7790.