Experts develop restorative justice proposals to address Catholic sexual abuse crisis

Author: Dennis Brown

ND Experts

Daniel Philpott

Daniel Philpott

Political Science

Ornamental cross on the Basilica of the Sacred heart. Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame.
Ornamental cross on the Basilica of the Sacred heart. Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame.

A group composed of scholars, psychologists, clergy, restorative justice experts and victim-survivors of the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse crisis has developed a set of proposals that encourage the use of restorative justice as a means to help heal victim-survivors and the broader Church.

The proposals are the result of a two-year study supported by an initiative created by the University of Notre Dame’s Office of the President as part of the Notre Dame Forum, ‘“Rebuild My Church’:  Crisis and Response,” to fund research projects that address issues emerging from the crisis. The proposals have been forwarded for consideration to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

A cross-section of 25 experts met in 2021 and 2022 at Notre Dame and the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, respectively, to examine whether lessons for the Church could be found in the restorative justice traditions of Indigenous peoples and the efforts of nations such as South Africa, Rwanda and Canada.

Used in a variety of settings, restorative justice focuses on reestablishing right relationship among all people wounded by unjust actions by holding offenders — be they criminals, governmental leaders or others — accountable, while empowering victims to actively participate in the process. 

In addition to the proposals that were developed, the participants agreed that significant wounds remain and that the teachings of Jesus call all Catholics to promote holistic justice and healing.

“We exhort Church leaders to listen humbly to the voices of victim-survivors, including those abused as adults who have not been sufficiently included in the conversation, to understand their specific needs for healing and wholeness,” Notre Dame political science professor Daniel Philpott said. “Restorative justice is rooted in the Gospel and animated by the holistic and unifying power of the Eucharist, significantly at a time when the U.S. bishops have called for a Eucharistic Revival.”

The proposals are as follows:

  • Create a national center with experts and practitioners to equip the broader Church in restorative justice, particularly healing circles, to accompany those who have been directly and peripherally harmed by abuse.
  • Establish a national healing garden as a permanent site of healing, prayer and accompaniment for victim-survivors of clergy sex abuse and for the broader Church.
  • Institute an annual day of prayer and penance for healing and reconciliation for victim-survivors of clergy abuse and for broader healing in the Church.
  • Initiate trauma-informed training for clergy, seminarians, lay ministers, lay leaders and parish communities to communicate the realities and effects of trauma in order to compassionately accompany victim-survivors.

“We believe these proposals reflect a synodal Church, which is called to listen to, accompany and heal the broken-hearted, in addition to being a witness to the broader culture, which suffers from similar wounds,” Philpott said. “We understand that for many, further measures are needed such as concrete steps toward greater accountability, due process for the accused and pathways to healing for those rightfully removed from ministry.

“We offer our proposals after much prayer and dialogue, with hope and openness to the Holy Spirit’s guidance on our shared journey of faith.”

Taking recommendations from the broader group, seven participants developed the proposals. In addition to Philpott, they are:

  • Rev. Thomas Berg, professor of moral theology, St. Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie
  • Mary Glowaski, assistant to the bishop in pastoral care, Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana
  • Rev. Daniel Griffith, the Wenger Family Fellow of Law, University of St. Thomas School of Law; pastor and rector, Basilica of St. Mary, Minneapolis
  • Michael Hoffman, Archdiocese of Chicago advocate for healing and prevention; former president of Prevent Child Abuse, Illinois; victim-survivor of clergy abuse
  • Susan Mulheron, chancellor for canonical affairs, Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis
  • Emily Ransom, assistant professor of English, Holy Cross College, Notre Dame; victim-survivor of clergy abuse