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November 9, 2018

Dahlgren Dialogue: A Path Forward on the Clerical Sexual Abuse Crisis

By Therese Perby Señal (C'19)

Members of the Georgetown community flocked to Dahlgren Chapel on Wednesday, October 24, 2018, for the latest installment of Dahlgren Dialogues. These dialogues are a series of events co-hosted by the Initiative for Catholic Social Thought and Public Life and the Office of Mission and Ministry with the aim of discussing relevant issues at the intersection of faith and public life. This iteration focused on the Catholic Church’s recent revelations of sexual abuse and finding a path forward to protect the vulnerable, hold leaders accountable, and begin to reform, renew, and heal the church. 

The panelists were Anne Burke, a justice on the Illinois Supreme Court and interim chair of the National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; Father Jerry McGlone, S.J., the associate director for the Protection of Minors for the Conference of Major Superiors of Men; Kerry Robinson, the founding executive director and global ambassador of the Leadership Roundtable; and Erica Lizza, a Georgetown undergraduate and president of the campus group Catholic Women. John Carr, the founder and director of the Initiative, moderated the conversation.

Each panelist brought a wealth of experience to the event and offered differing perspectives on the best path forward for the Church. Justice Burke, for example, focused on the Church’s need to cooperate with civil authorities and noted the many documents that Church leaders have hidden from investigation. Robinson, on the other hand, stressed the importance of lay leadership in the Church, particularly in adding women’s voices to the Church’s decision-making process. Father McGlone, himself a survivor of abuse perpetrated by a priest, currently works with men who face assault allegations. He spoke of the resilience of survivors and emphasized creating a culture within the Church that empowers them to speak out. As a senior at Georgetown, Lizza was the youngest of the panelists and contributed her perspective as a young Catholic. “[Young people] want change, and we want it now,” Lizza stated, much to the agreement of those gathered in the chapel. These differing viewpoints, however, came to the same conclusion: the Church must be proactive if it wants to heal and move forward.

While the Church’s sexual abuse scandal has not affected me personally, I am a young woman on a college campus, where women are three times more likely to experience sexual violence. Coupled with the recent #MeToo movement, the issue of sexual abuse is never far from my mind. This crisis, however, impacts not only me, but my family and friends back home. My parents immigrated to the United States from the Philippines, a predominantly Catholic country. My dad now works for the Archdiocese of New York, taking care of retired priests. I went to CCD throughout elementary and middle school, and I attended a Jesuit high school. My Catholic upbringing has always been a comfort to me, an anchor that kept me connected to my identity. Yet nowadays, it feels as though that anchor is dragging me down. I can’t help but wonder if the same priests who gave me ice cream when I visited my dad at work have hurt others, or if the Jesuit who taught me Latin knew about abuse but said nothing. Did my peers who served as altar boys and girls suffer? If they did, how did I not notice?

Now there exists a conflict within me: on the one hand, there is the desire to trust the people I have known for years and who have treated me with kindness and decency; on the other hand, I feel the instinct to protect the people I love and speak out against the secrecy, deception, and lies that have pervaded the Church. This internal conflict extends to my relationship to the Church itself, as I try to reconcile remaining in an organization that has covered up such widespread abuse.  

I was too young to remember the Boston Globe reports of widespread abuse throughout the Catholic Church in 2002. Yet whenever I heard the topic discussed among adults, it seemed like it was a distant memory, a one-time fluke that had already been fixed. To realize that this crisis has happened again is incredibly disheartening. The Church may move past this scandal, but I believe that many young Catholics like myself will bear its lasting effects. I can only hope that it is us who will heal the wounds of the survivors and ensure that it never happens again.

Therese Perby Señal (C'19) is a senior in the College studying computer science.