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Report recommends actions for Gonzaga to move past Catholic Church sexual abuse crisis

UPDATED: Wed., Sept. 1, 2021

Formalizing protocol to ensure sexually abusive Jesuits are prohibited from missioning at Gonzaga University is one of around two dozen formal actions a commission has recommended for the university to move past the Catholic Church’s abuse crisis.

The recommendations, outlined in a report released Wednesday, were made to Gonzaga President Thayne McCulloh, who formed the 12-member commission in April 2019 as the university faced criticism for allowing sexually abusive priests to live on campus.

“It is my belief that this report – and the recommendations contained within it,” McCulloh wrote in a letter to start the report, “will guide our actions and future way forward as we demonstrate our solidarity with victim-survivors, deepen our understanding, and work together as community to repair broken trust and advance the apostolic and educational mission of Gonzaga University.”

The commission was formed less than a year after the results of an 18-month grand jury investigation, more commonly known as the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report, were released. This investigation identified hundreds of abusive priests as well as systemic efforts by church leadership to protect them.

More specific to Gonzaga, a December 2018 story published by the investigative podcast “Reveal” reported how the Society of Jesus sent priests linked with credible sexual abuse claims to live at Cardinal Bea House, a Jesuit-owned building on the Gonzaga campus. Among them was James Poole, who admitted under oath that he sexually abused indigenous women and girls in Alaska.

The 46-page report prepared by the University Commission on Gonzaga’s Response to the Catholic Sexual Abuse Crisis details the context behind the group’s evaluation before concluding with the recommendations to McCulloh.

The group was co-chaired by Megan McCabe, assistant professor of religious studies, and Michelle Wheatley, vice president for mission and ministry. At least one Jesuit priest served in the group.

McCulloh, who did not sit on the commission, said Wednesday he has accepted the recommendations “without any qualification.”

From here, McCabe and Wheatley will co-chair a steering committee to make the recommendations a reality across a multiyear effort. Joining them on the steering committee are Gonzaga’s general legal counsel Maureen McGuire; the Rev. Tom Lamanna, superior of the Della Strada Jesuit Community; and Annmarie Caño, dean of the college of arts and sciences.

For the next month or so, the steering committee will seek nominations and self-nominations to form working groups with faculty, staff, students and other community representatives. Nominations can be made through the commission’s website, gonzaga.edu/commission.

“I think we’ve imagined them of all equal importance in many ways,” McCabe said. “Certainly some of the recommendations will be faster to accomplish or easier to accomplish, and those kinds of things are maybe happening first.”

Wheatley added, “We look at the publishing of these recommendations as a checkpoint in a much longer process. It’s initiating a new phase of work. It will extend, as we’re imagining it at this point, well into the future. There will be possibly even more recommendations and more working groups than what’s reflected here as we continue on with the process.”

Recommended actions

The commission’s recommendations to McCulloh are defined through five focus areas: academics, memorials and liturgies, mission identity, policy and procedure, and tribal relations, as the commission recognized “the history of Catholic sexual abuse has disproportionately harmed Native communities.”

The recommendation for protocol ensuring abusive Jesuits are prohibited from missioning at the university was included under the policy and procedure umbrella.

Building on commitments from both McCulloh and Jesuits West, according to the university, the recommendation calls for Gonzaga and Society of Jesus representatives to collaborate on the protocols, which should “clearly answer” the necessary conditions to allow a Jesuit with non-credible abuse allegations to be considered for assignment.

“Some of the issues there have to do with transparency, the rights of the accused to privacy that all people have in our society, what kinds of burdens of proof are considered necessary,” Wheatley said.

The issues involved are not “just about Jesuits,” McCabe said, pointing out the commission’s recommendation to build on the work of the university’s Title IX Steering Committee and foster a renewed investment in the prevention of on-campus sexual assault and intimate partner violence.

“I think there’s a huge sensitivity around this today,” McCulloh said. “The importance of formality is so that it doesn’t fade into the past. … For me, the formalization is I don’t ever want anything like that to ever happen again.”

Since the news came out in late 2018, McCulloh said he has an understanding with Lamanna that the two would need to have a discussion when any considerations are made to assign a Jesuit linked with any allegations. The discussion would play into the process determining whether to accept that individual onto the campus, he said.

“That has not occurred because there isn’t anyone that has had such allegations that’s come forward since that time,” McCulloh said.

The report also calls for Gonzaga administrators and Jesuit leadership to look at reimagining Bea House “as a space for future activities and works in service to the Jesuit mission in the university and region.”

Bea House has different symbolic meanings to different people, said McCabe, who cited the perspective of an Alaska Native student from a village where Poole abused.

The commission has not put forth any recommendations for its potential use, McCabe and Wheatley said.

“Ultimately, because it’s a Jesuit-owned space, any reimagining would have to be a collaborative partnership between the university and the Province,” Wheatley said.

Some recommendations have already been approved. That includes a call for Gonzaga to devote at least $10,000 per year to fund faculty research into ways to address issues linked with Catholic Church sexual abuse.

This scholarship fund, named “Social Justice & the Catholic Sexual Abuse Crisis,” could be used for reading groups, independent research or bringing scholars to campus for public talks. Wheatley and McCabe said the fund was approved at the beginning of the current academic year.

Other notable recommendations include the following, according to the report:

• Establish a permanent memorial to honor all affected by Catholic sexual abuse, “specifically those abused by Jesuits who were later housed in Cardinal Bea house living on safety plans.”

• Develop ways to increase attention to the undergirding features of the Catholic abuse crisis across university curricula.

• Develop an installation or display to commemorate Gonzaga’s history and ongoing relationship with regional Native communities.

When asked about funding the recommendations, Wheatley said the strategies involved will likely depend on the project, as some of them are already embedded in the university’s work that could be supported by the reallocation of current university resources.

In other cases, Gonzaga may have to engage in partnerships either with benefactors or other organizations, she said.

“I can think of several people who have already indicated that they believe this is important work,” McCulloh said.

From the start, Wheatley said commission members made it clear they wanted to be “part of something real and meaningful and actionable.”

“It reshapes our community. It reshapes the kinds of things that we commit to,” McCabe said of the recommendations. “And then it becomes, in many ways, very disrupting to these kinds of patterns of abuse. Unfortunately, that’s slow and hard work.”

‘Gonzaga must become more intentional’

In reaching these recommendations, the commission was mindful not to ask or require anyone, including commission members themselves, to disclose their experiences with abuse.

“Throughout this journey, Commission members were humbled, awed, and inspired by how many community members shared their stories and how their perspectives strengthened this process,” the report read.

The commission was not tasked with investigating any impropriety, “though the task of establishing context necessarily included information gathering in some forms,” the report notes.

Accordingly, the report doesn’t delve deeply into a section called “Who knew what when?” The report acknowledges how some were more aware than others of the sending of credibly accused men to Bea House, concluding with “a key takeaway: Gonzaga must become more intentional in owning and sharing the University’s story as well as navigating its relationship with the Society of Jesus.”

“We hope that the recommendations we put forward are ways of engaging people in this work of tearing down unjust structures and building up just structures in which all people can thrive,” Wheatley said.

McCulloh added, “My sense is that we feel like what is to be known is known. It’s a matter of record. So really, our efforts recognizing that there are also limits to what we can know, especially about the past and past events, is that we need to be focused on today and moving forward, because there’s plenty of issues that need to be addressed.”

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