Kerry Temple '74 | September 27, 2018
On August 14, a Pennsylvania grand jury reported seven decades of sexual abuse in six Catholic dioceses involving 300 priests and 1,000 victims — covered up by Church authorities. Three days later, The New York Times carried an op-ed by Kathleen Sprows Cummings ’95M.A., ’99Ph.D. in which the director of Notre Dame’s Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism called for “nothing less than radical, wholesale reform.”
The Pennsylvania native, who later told me a similar report from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in 2005 had been “personally very painful,” says this latest round “hit me in a very different way.” She wrote in the Times: “My once-polite requests for incremental reform have morphed overnight into demands that church leaders voluntarily relinquish their place at the head table.” She said it was time to rethink her oft-used analogy about women finding a seat at the table. “We need to rip off the tablecloth,” she wrote, “hurl the china against the wall.”
For some of us, the Pennsylvania findings felt like more of the same, the latest in 20 years of pedophilic scandals in the news. For many others, this felt different. I heard declarations after the report that the Church’s walls were caving in, that Church leaders could no longer take the moral high ground on any issue. Why was this so different from all the previous revelations, cover-ups, settlements and vows to be different going forward? I asked Kathy Cummings to help me find an answer.
“First of all,” she says, after explaining how her thoughts and feelings found their way into the Times, “the magnitude and the scale. I mean, we’re talking about a lot of children and a lot of priests. But it also indicted the culture that supported it to a greater degree than other reports did. You could still make a case, and people did, saying, ‘You know, a few mistakes, a few bad apples.’ But this one, you really can’t. You see this culture of abuse, and a culture of wanting to protect the institution at all costs. That was really made clear to me, and that’s what made me really angry.
“I used to say, ‘I write about the Church, but I don’t write about sex abuse.’ I think that what’s changed for me now is you can’t write about the Church — the Catholic Church — and not write about it and not talk about it. At this moment in the Church, if we’re not talking about it, we’re complicit in the evil.”
But in the past, I say, there were cover-ups and bishops moving people around, and with no repercussions, no real punishment. Clerics got reassigned or went to Rome, were left off the hook.
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