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After two decades of intensive revelations, the wounds from priestly sex abuse in the Catholic Church in the United States remain vastly unhealed. Most enduringly, thousands of survivors of abuse remain wounded spiritually, psychologically, emotionally, and relationally. The ripple effects have wounded their families and communities on an exponential scale and have weakened trust among members of the Church more broadly. Large numbers have broken communion with the Church. Other Christian churches also have seen revelations of abuse and are grappling with their responses.

The extent of wounds from abuse and possible healing responses on the part of the Catholic Church were the subject of a consultation that was held at the University of Notre Dame on September 24th, 2021, titled, “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?” The consultation was convened by Dr. Katharina Westerhorstmann of the Department of Theology at Franciscan University and myself, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame. It was enabled by a grant from the Church Sexual Abuse Crisis Research Grant Program sponsored by Notre Dame’s President’s Office. The event brought together twenty-three scholars, priests, lawyers, survivor advocates, and therapists for a day of intensive discussion. Six of the participants were survivors of sex abuse; one other was seriously affected in his career and ministry. The conversation is conveyed in the rapporteur’s report here.

That wounds persist on a large scale is not to ignore that bishops and other church leaders have responded to the abuse in important and effective ways (as have leaders of other Christian communities). Norms for the protection of minors established in the Dallas Charter of 2002 have made the Catholic Church one of the safest places for youth in American society. The policies that the Vatican set forth in the 2019 document, Vos Estis Lux Mundi, establish accountability for bishops, the Church’s highest level of authority. Bishops and priests have issued apologies and conducted masses of reparation and healing, while dioceses have paid out millions of dollars in reparations. In recent years, 158 dioceses and 24 religious order provinces in the United States have published lists of accused priests and religious. Many bishops, priests, and other religious have extended empathy and support for survivors.

Yet, wounds remain widespread, the members of the consultation agreed. While generalization should never supplant each survivor’s story of injury and response, common patterns emerge. A common claim of survivors is that they never received sincere acknowledgment and pastoral support from the Church. Even ones who secured reparations or saw accountability for their abuser often report that they experienced little empathy or support for the genuine healing of wounds that they suffered at the hands of the clergy. Many report that this failure harmed them more than the abuse itself. Many have left the Church. 

Other, related wounds persist as well. Continual headlines with new revelations contribute to the impression that much abuse is still hidden. There remain priests and bishops who have committed or were complicit in abuse who have not met with accountability. Additionally, adult victims of sexual abuse in the context of seminaries, religious orders, parishes, and other ministries have increasingly expressed a need for healing of their wounds that have been largely unaddressed. In the aggregate, the Church has suffered the loss of membership, credibility, and the ability to carry out effective evangelization. The perception is widespread that the Church’s response to abuse has been reactive, piecemeal, and narrowly legal.

What is needed is a response that is proactive, holistic, and restorative. Arguably, such a response begins with telling the full truth about clerical abuse. Making this case is no less than the Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, who said in an interview in 2021 that for the Church to retain a credible voice in matters of justice, the truth about clerical sexual abuse “must come to light.” In September 2021, Pope Francis made the point even more fully:

In speaking to the leaders of the Episcopal Conferences from throughout the world, gathered in Rome in February 2019, I expressed my encouragement so that they might assure [that the] wellbeing of victims might not be sidelined in favor of the misguided concern for the reputation of the institutional Church. Rather, only by facing the truth of these evil practices and of humbly seeking pardon from victims and survivors will the Church find its way to a place where it can be relied upon once again as a place of welcome and safety for those in need. Our expressions of sorrow must be converted into concrete pathways of reform to both prevent further abuse and to give confidence to others that our efforts will bring about real and reliable change. I encourage you to listen to the cry of the victims . . .. 

If Chancellor Merkel and Pope Francis are right to place a premium upon truth, how might this be done?

Guidance may be found in the experiences of tens of countries in the past generation who have faced pasts of violence and injustice amidst a transition to a peace settlement or a nascent democracy. The consultation looked at these experiences and asked what lessons could be drawn. One of their most common responses at the nation-state level is a truth commission, over 40 of which have taken place around the globe. The most famous is surely South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission of 1996-1998, while a more recent model is Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission of 2007 to 2015, which addressed Canada’s history of abuse in its Indian Residential Schools. Where national truth-telling processes have been strong and robust, they have been lauded for their restorative effects, not least by victims and victim organizations. 

The logic motivating truth commissions is that a full accounting of the truth about systemic past injustice can enable a country to build a stable and just future. Three more specific fruits of truth commissions hold promise for the Catholic Church, just as they do for nation-states. First, a full revelation of the truth, usually in the form of a comprehensive report, publicly condemns past injustices, which may continue to enjoy legitimacy, creates confidence that crimes are not being covered up, and, through these achievements, confers credibility upon a political regime – or a church. Second, the most robust truth commissions succeed in revealing not merely “forensic truth,” meaning the full facts about injustices, but also “healing truth,” that is, truth that contributes to the restoration of victims. In countries such as South Africa, Rwanda, Guatemala, and Canada, victims told their stories in the presence of sympathetic listeners, including loved ones, community members, government officials, and sometimes even perpetrators or their surrogates. Third, revealing the truth can have a “multiplier effect” in begetting further restorative practices, including repentance, reparations, accountability, the building of memorials, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Truth is not only invaluable in itself but also necessary for additional steps.

Perhaps the greatest criticism of truth commissions is that they raise expectations of healing and restoration that they cannot fulfill. The best way to alleviate this pitfall is to avoid viewing them as a “one and done” endeavor. A truth commission could be complemented by local forums such as the restorative justice healing circles that have taken place in the Minneapolis and Milwaukee Archdioceses. In Chicago, a healing garden serves as a memorial to abuse victims and as an invitation to practices of remembrance such as masses devoted to the healing of survivors. A national healing garden, modeled on this one, could serve to nurture and maintain a healing dynamic. Both the healing circles and the healing gardens were discussed at the consultation.

Telling the truth, along with other practices that aim to bring healing to the manifold wounds of abuse, manifests the restorative logic at the heart of the Christian Church: God’s reconciliation of the world to himself through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. For Catholics, this reconciliation is made available to humans through the Eucharist. Jesus’ sacrifice restores right relationship through solidarity with victims, calling perpetrators to repentance, enacting and enabling forgiveness, and bringing about spiritual and emotional healing. In proactively practicing reconciliation, the Church would display Christ and offer a model for other churches, religious communities, and civil society institutions who, as is becoming ever clearer, face their own troubled histories of sexual abuse.

The time is right to explore the establishment of a truth commission for the Catholic Church in the United States. Several of the participants in the consultation expressed interest in pursuing this idea further. Might there be participation or cooperation with other Christian churches?

A truth commission is a big idea. For it to take place, many questions would have to be answered. Who would convene the commission? Finance it? Would testimonies be confidential or public? What legal issues would have to be surmounted? Of course, there are many respects in which the Church is not a sovereign state. Yet, were such an endeavor undertaken, the boldness and faith that would be required to enact it would surely also find solutions to these many questions. Even more so, the Catholic Church – and other churches – would be empowered in their message and its mission. 

Daniel Philpott

Daniel Philpott is Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame.


  • Bobbie A says:

    I deeply sympathize with those who have been hurt.
    However, oceans of cash and countless groveling words of apology have been issued to little effect.
    Nothing will restore an innocent childhood; nothing from the offenders will make the pain go away.
    If you think there is something, state the concrete steps in black and white. Be forwarned, sincere subjective expressions of repentant sentiment won’t with. That’s been done and not received.
    I am extremely skeptical that you can suggest anything that will change the deeper feelings, because no action today can undo history.

    • Mom says:

      While nothing from the offenders will remove the pain, there are things that the Church can and must do.

      First, the Church must be open in all its records. In many cases, it has not opened its records unless it has been legally obligated to do so. Victims of abuse, and their families – maybe most importantly the families, must have an honest accounting of the scandal. I am the child of an abuse victim. Out of respect to my parents I have remained Catholic. The abuse scandal is my Catholic heritage and is passed down to my children, whether I like it or not. The least that the Church can do for us is to give us a complete record of our families’ stories – not just partial glimpses from lawsuits and newspaper articles. An expression of regret is worthless unless it is accompanied by the facts and truth of what my family – and many more – actually experienced.

      One of my family members – only one – did receive some compensation from the Church. She spent it all on counseling for her daughter. (As a result of her childhood trauma, she had entered into an abusive relationship.) I know nobody who has received oceans of cash. I do know that the most vulnerable victims – Native American children sent to orphanages – still have not had their story acknowledged, let alone received any monetary compensation. The most vulnerable communities still suffer not only the effects of the abuse, but a feeling of being less than because they have received no compensation while others have. We owe these communities something. Identification of historical gravesites near orphanages, the demolishment of old buildings, the construction of something new and under the tribe’s control….these are all basic steps that could be taken to help these local communities that are in so much pain. If father is a recovering crack addict that solicited male prostitutes, you better damn well tell me.

      Next, I want you to know that some seminarians have been told that if their superiors tell them to be quiet about sexual abuse (we’re not talking confessional secrets here), they have been told that their vow of obedience is stronger than their legal duty to report childhood sexual abuse to the local police. This has to stop.

      Additionally, basic steps of accountability and tracking need to happen. Each diocese or order needs to release the current and past assignments for all of its priests, and these releases need to be centrally compiled so that anybody can go online and see where specific priests are (and have been assigned). A complete criminal history from all the countries and states that a priest has ever been assigned to should also be posted.

      Lastly, more transparency is needed for the committees that have been set up to account for past abuse and prevent future abuse. Some dioceses have had laypeople resign because their recommendations have gone unheeded.

      • Mom says:

        Edit: The sentence “If father is a recovering crack addict that solicited male prostitutes, you better damn well tell me.” was meant to go after the second to last paragraph.

  • Deacon Edward Peitler says:

    It won’t happen. The reason is this: Despite attempts at obfuscation, the underlying cause of the Church sexual abuse crisis is homosexuality. Without admitting same, truth-finding would amount to a sham. And it won’t be acknowledged because far too many clergy are sympathetic to homosexuality (and this includes most especially Bergoglio himself along with numerous bishops).

  • Paul Carrozzo says:

    Both prior comments say a lot and are in tune with the issue. My comment is, how many commissions, reviews, public hearings is enough? Why wait until now, recent come forwards, are adults going back 40 + years and in my opinion, a play to get money. The investigation has been going on for what, 20 years or so and if a person was hurt, and I am sure there were MANY, show up now? No there are people who see a cash cow and want to get part of it. Absolutely front page any and all incidents that occurred since the cleanout began, that is the news and needs prosecution. BTW, did you notice the study was funded by a grant? Perhaps the good professor wants another study, grant funded, to extend his career and credits?

  • Yan says:

    All things considered, seems like a good idea to me.

  • grateful1 says:

    With all due respect, this is pie-in-the-sky pap. Not a single person has yet been held publicly accountable for the McCarrick travesty, other than McCarrick himself. His intimates — e.g., Wuerl, Gregory, Tobin, McElroy, Farrell (HIS ROOMMATE, FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE!) — who benefited for decades from his influence, largesse, and reciprocal silence, all remain in positions of respect and authority in the Church. What faithful, scandalized, sick-at-heart layman or clergyman has any reason whatsoever to trust in a so-called “Truth Commission,” when the truth has been staring all of us in the face for years yet continues to be ignored at the most concrete and basic level?

  • Yan says:

    Dr. Philpott, I wouldn’t be too discouraged by these comments if I were you. The commenters are obviously unfamiliar with how truth commissions work, or with their many significant accomplishments in reconciling victims and victimizers, or with their profound accord with Christian principles, or with the fact that Christian principles have inspired them both as to the general concept and as to specific implementation of commissions.

    But the comments do show how deeply burned we feel by the Church. That is something that anyone planning such a truth commission as you have suggested will have to consider.