Archived Letters from Interim Director Fr. Howell, SJ

Some Elements towards Reconciliation and Reform

Posted by Patrick J. Howell, S.J. on Thursday, October 25, 2018 at 4:12 PM PDT

The current sexual abuse crisis has affected so many dimensions of the Catholic Church that our Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture necessarily must thoughtfully address it.  Thus I am offering this special edition of our ICTC newsletter.

One of the challenges we face as a center for the Catholic Intellectual heritage is that our audience is diffused and has multiple levels of knowledge and experience.  Some of us have been acutely aware of the seriousness of this issue for at least 33 years when Fr. Tom Doyle, O.P. first briefed all the American bishops on the intractability and incurability of the proclivity towards abuse of minors and outlined for all the bishops precisely what had to be done.

I have always felt immensely grateful that Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen of Seattle took this urgent message immediately to heart.  He and his staff that very week removed some priests from ministry, and then put in place a well-discerned, well-informed plan of action for any future abuse.   Unfortunately, it wasn’t until the Boston Globe series of articles in 2002 that the whole body of bishops acted to put in place the stringent, professionally advised “Dallas Chapter,” which included an external review process of every diocese to make certain that local bishops and their curial staff were following through on the mandates of the Chapter.

Here at Seattle University, I was dean of the School of Theology and Ministry in those years when the Boston Globe report broke open the story.   STM immediately held a public forum on the campus with theological and psychological experts addressing the issue (2002), and then the next year STM hosted Fr. Ron Rolheiser, O.M.I. who gave a major address on the issue, “Carrying a Scandal Biblically,” which was later published in our journal Seattle Theology and Ministry Review (2003).  Archbishop Alex Brunett introduced the talk that evening and gave an account of the ongoing efforts of the Archdiocese of Seattle to address the issue at every level.

Meanwhile the Jesuit’s Oregon Province was not without its challenges and faced a series of lawsuits from victims of abuse, especially from Alaska, which eventually resulted in filing for Chapter Eleven bankrupt.   Jesuits and religious order priests are all subject to the same ongoing training, mandated by the Dallas Charter, to recognize and report abuse and abusers and to create safe havens for all minors.

The shock of the recent Pennsylvania grand jury report, shocking because it revealed the depth and breadth of the abuse over multiple years, has resonated throughout the country, and this time the focus is much more squarely on the neglect in accountability and even malfeasance of some bishops. 

What is evident, however, is that the Dallas Charter has been effective, though it has not totally stemmed the horrible abuse.  Since 2004, the average number of new cases among diocesan priests has been less than nineteen per year and among religious order priests, two per year.  Those numbers stand in sharp contrast to an average of at least five hundred per year from about 1960 through 2002.

Of course, we always face the reality that it can take several years before a victim of abuse has the fortitude and resolve to make the report.

The Pennsylvania grand jury report, however, has surfaced much deeper issues related to clericalism, the enclosed, self-protective structures of the church, and the narcissism that underlies the abuse.  All this calls for a much more radical reform, one which providentially Pope Francis has been addressing and urging since the beginning of his pontificate.  All are aware, however, that the structural reforms needed have barely begun.

On November 15 Seattle University faculty and staff will have an opportunity to become better informed about the history of the sexual abuse crisis and a chance to discuss it in depth at a special afternoon forum (details forthcoming). ICTC plans are also in the works to host a symposium for the general public, including a day of reflection and reform sometime in February or March.

I am enclosing a PDF of Fr. Ron Rolheiser’s foundational article, as well as a link to John Carr’s article in America, where he offers eight points for a way forward towards effective reform.  Carr underscores such obvious points as 1. “There are not enough parents in the room when decisions are made; and 2. Lay people need to be much more involved—but need to be independent and focused on the needs of the vulnerable, not the protection of the institution or the care of perpetrators.”

As we go forward, let us continue to pray for healing and reconciliation for those who have been abused, as well as deep gratitude for their courage in bringing forward this horrible abuse of power and integrity of persons.

Patrick Howell, S.J., interim director

Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture


A short list of resources

John Carr, “Eight Lessons to Help Us Move Forward from the Sex Abuse Crisis,” America  (September 25, 2018). See

Ron Rolheiser, O.M.I., “Carrying a Scandal Biblically,” Seattle Theology and Ministry Journal.  (2003). View PDF.

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