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‘Make your voices heard’: Gonzaga lecturer urges strong response to priestly sexual abuse crisis

Dr. Jennifer Beste, Professor of Theology at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University, delivers a lecture called “Envisioning a Just Response to the Catholic Clergy Abuse Crisis” on Tuesday in the Hemmingson Center Ballroom at Gonzaga University. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Jennifer Beste acknowledged the message she brought to Gonzaga University on Tuesday evening wasn’t going to leave her lecture audience in a good mood.

It was a message about how the Catholic Church has the power and wealth to address the ongoing clergy sexual abuse crisis and is complicit in abuse as long as it doesn’t act.

She said young adults have the power to sway Church leaders as fewer young people stay religiously affiliated.

“The Catholic bishops are acting differently than they did the first decade of the 2000s. They are apologizing. They are trying to gain the trust of the laity,” Beste said.

And she urged people to turn those feelings of anger and exasperation into action because a majority of Catholics are necessary to sway the opinion of Church leaders.

“I ask you to please make your voices heard,” Beste said. “We need to organize. We need to protest.”

Beste has spent 25 years studying child sexual trauma and the Catholic clergy sexual abuse crisis, but at one point in the mid-’90s she found herself at a fateful crossroads.

Beste had the opportunity to go to medical school for psychiatry or pursue a doctoral degree and career as a medical ethicist. She chose the latter after working part time with kids, many of them survivors of sexual abuse, in Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s child psychiatry division while earning her master of divinity at the university.

“I knew that I could not become a psychiatrist because it was way too heartbreaking,” Beste recently told The Spokesman-Review.

Beste broke away from researching childhood trauma while enrolled in a Yale doctoral program and instead turned to a study of how God’s grace functions within the dynamics of abuse and trauma. The focus of the final chapter of her dissertation was what churches could do to support survivors.

Those ideas came full circle in her lecture at Gonzaga on Tuesday night.

The university’s religious studies department brought Beste, who teaches at College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University, as a part of its semiannual Flannery lecture series in Catholic theology.

In the fall, Rev. Thomas Doyle – the Catholic priest who blew the whistle on issues surrounding clergy sexual abuse in the mid-’80s before the crisis became public – spoke in the same series about the impacts of the crisis on the Catholic Church.

Beste said she knew Doyle’s lecture would be a hard act to follow and used her background studying trauma to inform her thesis that supportive relationships are “essential for healing and recovery.”

On Tuesday, she articulated ways that Catholic communities can support sexual abuse survivors through their process of recovery during her lecture. The process starts with empathetically listening to survivors to bring about healing, Beste said. Survivors require supportive listening to form a narrative of their abuse and need a safe, trusting environment to be able to report abuse.

“We have to be willing to open ourselves to trauma survivors and listen to their stories and pain and accompany them on their journey,” Beste said in an interview with The Spokesman-Review.

She said the latest research shows priestly sexual abuse survivors suffer from distinct forms of spiritual harm, in addition to typical responses to sexual trauma, due to Catholic beliefs that ordained priests act as a representation of God. And unsupportive and hostile reactions to reports of abuse can cause secondary victimization to survivors, Beste said.

In an interview with The Spokesman-Review, Beste drew parallels between clergy sexual abuse survivors and women who reported being raped on college campuses. She said while teaching a sexual ethics course at a Jesuit university hundreds of women confided in her that they’d been raped and did not feel safe disclosing their assaults to university officials.

“They were being treated as horrifically as survivors of Catholic clergy abuse,” Beste said. “It wasn’t in (universities’) best interest to find the truth. … It wasn’t in their best interest to help survivors and be sued by perpetrators.”

The first step for the Church to undertake to address its abuse crisis, Beste said during her lecture, is to disclose the full extent of reports of abuse and any subsequent cover-ups. Beste said she is frustrated by people who say this is already clear.

“Perpetrators are excellent at preying upon the most vulnerable,” said Beste, noting communities of color, youth, undocumented immigrants and people with disabilities.

After identifying the extent of the crisis, Beste said the Church needs to hire experts to create manuals for implementing best practices around identifying and preventing abuse, trauma-informed care for victims, training lay people to be survivor advocates, guiding parishes through the removal of an accused priest and ensuring accountability.

The Church’s response must also include collaboration with survivors and changing norms surrounding the passivity and obedience of children, Beste said.

Beste pointed to some concrete signs of progress by the Church in responding to clergy abuse, such as abuse response guidelines in 38 countries and Pope Francis’ “You Are the Light of the World” letter, which called for an all-out battle against abuse of minors and instituted new reporting and investigation norms.

Still, Beste said, the sluggish response is far from the all-out battle Pope Francis believes is necessary. For example, an Australian royal commission reported resistance to recommendations made by a Pontifical commission on clergy sexual abuse and a founding member of the Pontifical commission resigned, citing, in part, no substantive action had been taken. And Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the head of the Pontifical commission, expressed frustration with pushing through reforms in an Atlantic magazine article.

“It’s clear that there is a troubling lack of urgency,” Beste said.

Beste told The Spokesman-Review she is encouraged by Gonzaga prioritizing scholarship around the clergy sexual abuse crisis. She said she doesn’t think she would have had the opportunity to speak publicly about this even several years ago.

She said Gonzaga is likely leading the way among Jesuit schools with its commission for responding to the clergy sexual abuse crisis. The commission was formed four months after the school was criticized for allowing sexually abusive priests to live on campus.

Gonzaga’s commission of 12 members has been working for about a year to identify recommendations to President Thayne McCulloh for university action, according to spokesperson Mary Joan Hahn. A report on those recommendations is expected later this spring.

“The commission has held open community listening sessions and consulted with interested stakeholders and experts in Spokane and nationwide,” Hahn said in an email. “The Commission is grateful to all who have devoted their time to this important work.”

Catholic universities need to research the extent of potential abuse on campus and be transparent about it, Beste said. She said another obligation is for universities to use their research capabilities to research the crisis and study potential reforms for the Church.

“My hope is they will respond to the communities where there were victims and ask, ‘How can we make reparations? What are your ideas?’ ” Beste said in an interview.