Although this blog has been entirely devoted to topics related to my career and my scholarly interests such as the Civil War and Catholic history, I feel that as an historian, Notre Dame graduate, and a Catholic father with two children that I must speak out against the current widespread corruption in the Church.
This corruption takes many forms but it is epitomized by clerical sexual abuse, the enabling of this abuse by the refusal to punish guilty priests swiftly, and the cover-up of both of those things by some in the U.S. hierarchy and the Vatican. I wrote the following letter (edited for several typos) to Father John I. Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, begging him to make Notre Dame a leader in ending this scourge in American Catholicism. All I received back to this, and a previous letter, were terse form responses.
I feel compelled by the examples of other brave Catholics, both priests and laypeople, to add my voice for change, accountability, and reform. If we have learned anything from the McCarrick scandal, it’s that the bishops are incapable of fixing the problem by themselves. The laity must step up and take leadership now. Here is my letter:
Dear Father Jenkins,
Since sending my last email to you on July 29, in which I asked you to please revoke ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s honorary degree, I see that you have addressed both the McCarrick scandal and the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report. While speaking out on these two issues is important for all church leaders, whether they were directly involved or not, I feel that your words on both occasions were sadly deficient for a priest whose job is to be a moral example to your flock and a leader of the entire Notre Dame community. I am disappointed that you did not show more active leadership by not taking any action to right these horrible crimes of clerical sexual abuse and their cover-ups that are destroying the lives of so many abused children and adults as well as the faith of so many Catholics. I feel it’s necessary to explain my criticisms more fully in this letter in the hopes that it might move you or someone else at Notre Dame to do the right thing by revoking the honorary degrees of abusers and those who covered for them.
First, please let me explain why your statement on August 2 about McCarrick serves only to protect the disgraced cardinal’s reputation. Your letter refers to only one of the many accusations then known against McCarrick, thus minimizing the severity of the accusations against the ex-cardinal. In fact, he had also been accused of sexually abusing the first child he baptized, abuse that lasted over the course of several decades. The victim in question nearly committed suicide as a result. The details of this alleged crime are not merely “reprehensible” (as you put it in your letter) but unthinkably evil and despicably Satanic. Why did you not mention this very serious and disturbing allegation in your decision not to revoke McCarrick’s degree?
Now given your stated position on McCarrick’s alleged crimes brought before the New York Review Board, I understand that accusations and allegations are not enough to revoke an honorary degree in your mind. Let me point out that it is problematic to think a Notre Dame honorary degree is more important than a cardinal’s red hat that the pope already revoked prior to a canonical trial. You owe it to your fellow Notre Dame alumni to explain your reasoning on this matter more fully.
Let’s pretend for a moment that you are right to wait for the canonical trial to verify the allegation of minor abuse before making a decision. That doesn’t explain why your statement ignored secret settlements paid out in the Archdiocese of Newark in 2005 and 2007 because McCarrick had been credibly accused of abusing seminarians. Those settlements, reported on the same day as Cardinal Dolan’s report on the decision of his archdiocesan review board, are not disputed by McCarrick and the gory details have been widely reported online. On the basis of these settlements alone you should have revoked the degree. In this era of #MeToo, is it wise for Notre Dame to ignore the sexual abuse of adults, especially young seminarians who are abused by their powerful superior, a cardinal whose life should have been a moral example to the entire Roman Catholic Church? Your August 2 statement completely ignores the fact that the Archdiocese of Newark and Diocese of Metuchen felt there was enough validity in the two claims of the abused young men that Newark Archbishop John Myers settled the cases for a total of $180,000. I think we can reasonably assume that the church doesn’t just hand out that much money without having a good reason to suspect the abuse claims are true. Also, don’t you think that McCarrick’s keeping these settlements secret shows he is at the very least guilty of covering up what should have been public knowledge? How many other mothers’ young sons might he have potentially or actually abused since 2007 because the church kept the settlements secret? In the wake of the 2002 Dallas Charter and the church’s oft-repeated promises never again to hide sexual abuse, wouldn’t revoking McCarrick’s degree be a worthy stand for Notre Dame to take as a powerful and clear rebuke of both clerical sex abuse and episcopal cover-ups?
By refusing to revoke his honorary degree and minimizing the allegations against McCarrick as you did in your August 2 statement, you put his reputation ahead of the welfare of his victims and are tacitly approving of the church’s complicity in keeping McCarrick’s secrets unknown to millions of faithful American Catholics. This is the very spirit of clericalism, defined as putting the church’s clergy on a pedestal above the laity, that Pope Francis has denounced again and again, most recently in his August 20 “Letter to the People of God.” I wrote in my previous email that “Notre Dame could and should be a leader in calling for justice in the case of ex-Cardinal McCarrick, especially because of his deep ties to our university.” Sadly your statement declined to make any kind of effort toward making Notre Dame a part of the solution to the problem of sexual abuse and its cover-up in the American Catholic Church.
Regarding your August 21 remarks about the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report, I will briefly note three things. First, there is absolutely no call in this statement for specific action to address this crisis beyond your short prayer. Three popes, countless bishops, and other ordained Catholic leaders like you have been calling for prayer to solve this crisis since 2002 and yet here we are, with still no standard process of holding bishops accountable for their cover-ups of so many unspeakable crimes, whether in Newark or Pennsylvania or anywhere else. The people of God demand justice and an end to the cover-up, and it’s absolutely blasphemous for you and other Catholic leaders to hide behind prayer as an excuse for not making meaningful reforms. This is another example of you shrinking from taking any kind of active role in ensuring justice for the victims and accountability for the bishops’ egregious failings. Second, I take issue with the following statement: “They [“the stories in that report”] are appalling because some bishops, shepherds called to protect the flock, seemed often to have opened the gates to let the wolves prey on the sheep, and seem sometimes to have done more to protect the wolves than the sheep.” If you had actually read the report, you would never have used the words “seemed” or “seem.” The report, as well as the findings of the previous John Jay Report in 2004, unequivocally show that the bishops (1) absolutely did turn a blind eye to the evil priests devouring the laity’s children and (2) unquestionably protected those monsters in Roman collars by hiding their crimes and moving them from parish to parish. Your language here minimizes the reality of these crimes. Finally, you claim to “feel deep sadness and shame” over the grand jury report’s findings. Do you feel sad enough to do something about it though? The report clearly shows that Cardinal Donald Wuerl repeatedly covered for sexual abusers while serving as the bishop of Pittsburgh. Recently North Catholic High School in Pittsburgh decided to remove Cardinal Wuerl from the school’s name. There would be no better way to show your disgust for the church’s crimes laid bare in the grand jury report than to revoke Cardinal Wuerl’s honorary degree, preferably at the same time that you get rid of McCarrick’s. It’s deeply embarrassing to me and many in the Notre Dame community that our university’s leadership continues to honor these men.
It is never too late to admit that you were wrong and for you to do the right thing by revoking both the honorary degrees of Wuerl and McCarrick. Justice delayed is justice denied, so the sooner you revoke the degrees the better. Furthermore, I hope Notre Dame will do more than ask for prayers for victims while guilty bishops still hold their offices. As you put it so well in your inaugural address in 2005, “Let no one ever again say that we dreamed too small.” My dream is that Notre Dame’s president will help make my alma mater a key player in ending this scourge of clerical sexual abuse forever. If you are unwilling to do so, I respectfully suggest that you should resign so someone else can finally do the right thing.
Notre Dame Class of 2006
Update: My letter was published in the August 31 edition of Notre Dame’s student newspaper, The Observer. You can read it here: https://ndsmcobserver.com/2018/08/dear-father-jenkins-3/.