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Experts at Rome meet delve into historical abuses of power

The abuse crisis has affected not only how people see saints from the past, but also future candidates, they said
A photo of the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

A photo of the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. (Photo: Encyclopædia Britannica)

Published: April 20, 2024 05:57 AM GMT
Updated: April 20, 2024 05:58 AM GMT

The nature of power and how the abuse of power has been dealt with in the past and present were the focus of an international conference in Rome attended by about a dozen scholars.

Experts in history, philosophy, sociology, political science, psychology and education came together at Rome's Pontifical Gregorian University April 17-19 to present talks including: the effects of mass violence waged by colonial powers; the misuse of the memory of the Holocaust; sexual predation in the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages; and slave holding by Jesuits in the United States.

Jesuit Father David Collins, a professor of history at Georgetown University, presented a case study of his order's work in the United States with "large communities of descendants of those who were held in slavery by Jesuits to develop programs of redress, repair and racial healing."

Their work started because a building on the Georgetown campus was being remodeled and people thought it would be opportune to change the building's name, he told Catholic News Service April 18. The building had been named after an early 19th-century Jesuit who had played a role in the sale of hundreds of slaves in 1838.

The university's president could have, "with a swipe of the pen," changed the name right then and there to "something wholesome and edifying," Father Collins said.

He said the president saw "that would be sort of erasing history, making it disappear," and he instead decided to make the name change "an opportunity to bring this history to the university's attention" and get the wider community involved in the process, resulting in the 2015 creation of the working group on slavery, memory and reconciliation that Father Collins chaired.

"How do good people become involved in bad things? How do good people have blindnesses that make them incapable of seeing something that we're seeing with a certain amount of clarity a hundred years later? Those are important things to preserve," he said.

Memorials, for example, are just "partial stories" that select and tell one side of an historical event, he said.

A city like Rome, he said, is "full of memorials that are about the exercise of power and for the good," but "these very exercises of power have had their victims and have done their violence. We need to understand that better than we have" and "to add to the part of the story that is neglected, which is that it's come at a cost."

Kathleen Sprows Cummings, a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame and former director of its Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism, told CNS part of her work is "to think about saints as a way to … think about who we remember and why."

"This is also occurring in the backdrop of a conversation we're having in the United States" and elsewhere about "who do we honor and why through our memorials and monuments," she said.

Her talk to the conference, she said, wove together clerical sex abuse in the United States, "how this is impacting the saints we remember and the saints we're making and the saints we're not making, and how that is connected to public enshrinement."

One example of reinterpreting existing saints, she said, is looking at the life of St. Maria Goretti, who died in 1902 at the age of 11 after she was stabbed by a 20-year-old for refusing his sexual advances and attempted rape.

"When I was growing up in a Catholic high school, the suggestion was that she was resisting temptation. She was being chaste," Sprows Cummings said. More to the point, "she was a child."

Today, the patron saint of chastity and purity is more often upheld as a patron saint of abused children and rape victims, and, she said, "some dioceses call her the patron saint of safe environments for their training."

The abuse crisis has affected not only how people see saints from the past, but also future candidates, "perhaps saints who were whistleblowers or saints who did what they could," she said.

For example, she said, there is a change.org petition for the cause for canonization of Sister Catherine Anne Cesnik, a member of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, who was found dead near a garbage dump in Baltimore in 1970. Her unsolved murder was featured in the Netflix documentary series, The Keepers.

"I don't think she's going to be canonized, but the very fact that they're calling for it is indicative of a search for heroes," she said.

The first memorial dedicated to survivors and victims of clerical sexual abuse in the United States, Sprows Cummings said, was a millstone erected in Mendham, New Jersey, in 2004.

The millstone refers to Jesus' admonishment in the St. Matthew's Gospel (18:6) about temptations to sin and "Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea."

The verse also indicates why the church made it an urgent priority to hide abuse by its members, said Dyan Elliott, a professor of medieval history at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

"The general consensus was that it is better to sin in private than in public" and to conceal the sin "so you won't scandalize one of the little ones," who, in the verse, are not children, but adult believers who are "weak" or may be "inclined to sin," she told CNS.

"So the way that the clergy interpreted it was, they really believed -- so there's some sincerity here that's not just cover-up -- that the more auspicious, holy, the person, the more that the bad example could cause people to sin," she said.

In her work and talk at the conference on sexual abuse by clergy in the Middle Ages, Elliot said she believes predators may have used priestly celibacy as "a blind behind which people can do terrible things" and to have access to young boys.

The Catholic Church teaches that the gift of priestly celibacy is a sign of pastoral charity to be able to fully serve God and others and, just as Jesus was totally united to the church, the priest binds his life to the church.

"I know the Anglican Church and other churches have had problems" with abuse even though they allow married priests, Elliott said. But the problem is when celibacy is held up like a kind of superpower.

In the Middle Ages, she said, celibacy was a basis for power, and it "set the cleric aside as being above and purer than lay people."

"Over time the priest got holier and holier," she said, "making the priest seem above reproach, putting him on a pedestal."

Sprows Cummings said even though there is much greater awareness about the crime of abuse, and safeguarding has improved, "I think the power of the 'Yes, Father' syndrome is still palpable."

"I really resist the many people in the church who say that (abuse) ended in 2002 with the Dallas Charter. Because for one thing, we have evidence that it didn't, and we also know that it takes decades for survivors to come forward," she said.

The closed-door conference, "The Memory of Power and Abuse of Power," was organized by professors from the Rome university and the Lucerne University of Education in Switzerland, and Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, president of the Gregorian's Institute of Anthropology: Interdisciplinary Studies on Human Dignity and Care.

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