Notre Dame to host consultation session, lecture on Church’s sex abuse crisis and lessons derived from truth and reconciliation processes

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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.

Daniel Philpott, a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, and Katharina Westerhorstmann, a professor of theology at Franciscan University, will host a public lecture and a day-long consultation session at Notre Dame on Thursday and Friday (Sept. 23 and 24), examining the Church’s sex abuse crisis and the lessons that may be derived from national truth and reconciliation processes for healing and restoration.

The initiative, “The Truth Will Make You Free: What Promise Do National Truth and Reconciliation Processes Offer for the Catholic Church’s Response to the Sexual Abuse Crisis?” is funded by Notre Dame’s Church Sexual Abuse Crisis Research Grant Program and stems from the 2019-20 Notre Dame Forum, “‘Rebuild My Church:’ Crisis and Response.” 

On Friday, Philpott and Westerhorstmann will bring together approximately 25 participants including church leaders, representatives of survivor groups, experts on national truth and reconciliation processes, theologians, psychologists and legal experts to generate ideas and examine the crisis in a new light, through the lens of reconciliation and restorative justice.

“We believe that there are still many unhealed wounds from the sex abuse crisis, and we would like to see an approach that is more proactive, holistic and restorative,” Philpott said. “Many survivors and victims haven’t been adequately acknowledged or heard or empathized with by others in the Church, and that’s important. There have been financial and legal settlements, but money and legal measures alone can’t really bring healing.”

Specifically, Philpott and Westerhorstmann assert that the Church’s efforts have fallen short in several key respects: There has not been a full authoritative account of the truth, there has been inadequate accountability for bishops and other high Church officials, and there has been little empathetic public acknowledgment of survivors of abuse on the part of the Church.

The scholars see lessons for the Church in the prominent national truth commissions that have taken place around the world, from South Africa and Sierra Leone to Chile and Peru.

“We want to really explore a more comprehensive healing effort to allow the Church to be restored and to go forward,” he said. “And, in the best instances, that’s what some of these countries have done after they’ve been through a period of apartheid, for example, or a communist dictatorship or war.”

While Friday’s consultation will be a closed-door session, its proceedings will be published in a report. 

Thursday evening’s public lecture will be presented by Helen Alvaré, the Robert A. Levy Endowed Chair in Law and Liberty at Antonin Scalia Law School, George Mason University, and one of the leading lay voices in the Church. The lecture, “Abandonment to Divine Providence: How Truth and Reconciliation Can Become a Path To Healing Sex Abuse in the Catholic Church,” will take place at 7:30 p.m. in Rooms 215/216 of McKenna Hall and is co-sponsored by the University’s Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Government.

The project is an excellent example of Notre Dame’s leadership on difficult topics, Philpott said.

“Father Hesburgh said that Notre Dame is the place where the Church does its thinking,” he said. “It’s a place where Catholic scholars and people from other realms can come together to think creatively in ways that can serve and make a difference for the Church.”