University opens up about Church sex abuse accusations
The Santa Clara
October 11, 2018
Members of the Santa Clara community packed into the De Saisset Museum auditorium on Tuesday to listen to a Jesuit priest detail his experiences with sexual abuse, as well as hear a dean and university professors discuss where the community can go from here.
Tuesday’s panel featured a discussion by Brendan McGuire, S.J., an administrative leader in the Diocese of San Jose; Santa Clara psychology professor Thomas Plante; Santa Clara religious studies professor Sally Vance-Trembath and Rev. Kevin O’Brien, S.J., dean of the Jesuit School of Theology.
In the midst of a sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, university President Michael Engh S.J. sent out a campus-wide email on Oct. 8 telling community members that the university will be engaging in discussions about sexual abuse. He said that through discussion, the University could begin to offer victims avenues for reform.
Tuesday’s discussion on clergy sex abuse was the first step toward that engagement.
The talk comes about a month after Patrick McGrath, Bishop of the San Jose Diocese, announced he will be releasing a list in the coming weeks of priests who have had serious allegations of sexual misconduct
against them in recent years. Since Bishop McGrath’s announcement in September, the San Jose Diocese has hosted a handful of “listening sessions” during which the public is invited to have a discussion with McGrath and other priests about their experiences with the Catholic Church.
The discussion Santa Clara hosted was not put on by the San Jose Diocese, but the university’s own church, Mission Santa Clara de Asis, is part of the San Jose Diocese and therefore it’s possible priests and staff from the Mission may be on the list of abusers set to come out later this month.
At Tuesday’s discussion, McGuire was the first to speak. Audience members fell silent as he began to recount his own experience with the abuse crisis.
He told the crowd of strangers he was sexually abused by a priest when he was 18 years old. His abuser, who raped dozens of victims, was finally caught, convicted and died in prison in 2006.
After detailing his experiences with clergy sexual misconduct, McGuire said he thinks women should have bigger roles in the Church. He believes if this were already the case, the level of abuse would not be as high.
“We, the victims, ultimately just want to be heard,” McGuire said. “Strangely, it’s telling the story that heals. If I had known that 35 years ago, I would have told the story then. Our biggest fear is that we will be defined by our wounds. We have wounds but we are not those wounds themselves. So please listen to us and help us carry the pain.”
Plante was next to speak after McGuire. He is a registered psychologist who sees patients affected by abuse in the Catholic Church.
“We need to take that deep breath, try to manage our emotional reactions to a very difficult and challenging story and use really good science—the best data available—and the best practices in child protection in order to solve problems,” Plante said.
He made a point to say that the blame can’t be enitrely placed on local clergymen.
“Since 2002, clergy abuse has been very low. About half of the accused have been international priests who were not trained or screened.” Plante concluded his portion of the
discussion by noting that sexual misconduct is not a problem found solely in the Catholic Church.
“Tragically, anytime you put men with children and teens, a certain percentage of them will violate that trust and exploit that relationship,” Plante said. “Sexual abuse of children has been a common phenomenon.” Professor of theology Sally VanceTrembath followed Plante by discussing her take on the sexual misconduct crisis and paths the community can take to resolve it.
“From a theologian’s point of view, this crisis is a staffing crisis and Catholic education is part of the problem,” VanceTrembath said. “Ordained personnel are not the most important members of a parish staff. Yes, they are essential. We are a sacramental tradition—without the sacraments we will die. But the rest of the team is equally essential.”
Vance-Trembath went on to give various examples of how institutions can drastically help with issues affecting our society, including the university.
“We need to take back the narrative. These stories are either not being told at all, being told by people who are ignorant or by people who have been terrorized by it. We need to pay attention to telling our story.”
Finally, O’Brien, head of the university’s theology department, talked about his own struggles with the issues and allegations of sexual misconduct that the Church faces.
He shared that many students approach him with the same challenges he faced—not knowing whether to stay with the Church or to disconnect themselves from that huge part of their lives. O’Brien said that this was a question he asked himself many times over the years in light of all the allegations.
“Do I stay or do I go? I can only say please dig deep, discern the voices. The Church will set us free. I’m sorry,” O’Brien said. He laughed at his mistake then corrected himself. “The truth will set us free; John’s Gospel. And we hope the Church is a part of that.”
O’Brien called for everyone to speak their truth, to listen to victims and to call out the evils in the world.
Santa Clara has hosted panels on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church tracing back to the 1990s, even before the severity of the issue was revealed to millions of Americans by journalists from The Boston Globe in 2002.
In the campus-wide email Engh sent prior to Tuesday’s discussion, he updated community members on what Santa Clara is doing in the midst of the sexual misconduct crisis.
He also called on members of the Church to take responsibility.
“We need church leaders to support institutionalized accountability and reform,” Engh said. “The abuse of power by those invested with a sacred trust has fractured lives and communities. All people, our young people in particular, deserve better. With your help, Santa Clara will join other Jesuit universities in realizing the reform and healing we seek, as we care for the most vulnerable among us.”
Contact Sasha Todd at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (408) 554-4852.