Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Historians Take 'Long View' on Catholic Sex Abuse Crisis

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Historians Take 'Long View' on Catholic Sex Abuse Crisis

Article excerpt

CHICAGO * While the U.S. bishops were on retreat at Mundelein Seminary north of Chicago in early January, a group of Catholic historians were gathering in the city's downtown for their annual academic conference. In both places, the sex abuse crisis was on people's minds.

Although the American Catholic Historical Association meeting included presentations on various things like the great Chicago Fire of 1871 and Pope Pius IX, the attendees--who by definition are usually focused on the past--were very much thinking and talking about the present crisis and what the future might bring for the church.

"I think it dominates many Catholic historians' minds these days," said Brian Clites, associate director of the Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, where he also teaches religious studies.

Clites, who is writing a book on the history of clergy sex abuse survivor movements, is one of a growing number of historians who are studying the issue overtly. But others--especially those who focus on the 19th and 20th centuries--believe their work can provide insights about the current crisis, as well as a needed corrective to inaccurate histories being presented by non-experts.

"Historians are professionally equipped to deal with the long view," said William Cossen, who teaches at the Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science, and Technology in Lawrenceville, Georgia.

Clergy sexual abuse "isn't a brand-new phenomenon; it doesn't come out of nowhere," said Cossen, who organized a last-minute panel on "A Church in Crisis: Catholic Sex Abuse in Historical Context" at the American Historical Association convention, which met in conjunction with the Catholic historians' group Jan. 3-5.

The panel explored how historians can help the church more effectively use the lessons of the past, especially around issues of power and authority in the church, to pursue justice and reform in the present. It also encouraged other historical scholars to help put the church's crisis in a broader context.

"We don't have to come up with brand new solutions to these issues. We already have tools for dealing with this," said Cossen, who has written about the need for lay oversight in the church. "It's not our theology or belief system that led to sex abuse, but the strongly institutional culture that 'circled the wagons.'"

A seminary system that separates priests from the rest of the community also contributed to the culture that encouraged cover-up, said panelist Catherine Osborne, who studies architecture and other historical issues of "space and place."

Such separation led to seeing the interests of fellow priests and the institution as more "fundamental" than those of victims, Osborne told NCR. "Once you have 'othered' a people, what you do to them matters less."

Historical accuracy needed

Osborne and other historians cautioned about a lack of historical accuracy or depth in much of contemporary discussion of the crisis, with some commentators blaming the church's official adoption of celibacy for priesthood in the 12th century and others rooting the problem in the permissive sexual mores of the 1960s. Neither of those explanations--often flowing from ideological beliefs--is supported by historical evidence, scholars told NCR.

Historians can give a solid historical perspective, said Massimo Faggioli, professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University in Philadelphia. "We need to know more about how the institution works, not how it's supposed to work, but how it is and how it has worked in history."

To do that, historians may look at other major crises in church history, especially those that included corruption of the clergy, said Faggioli, who is teaching an undergraduate course on the history of the sex abuse crisis this semester.

But commentators should not be too quick to call the crisis "the next Reformation," said Clites. …

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