Cathleen Kaveny – « Summer of Shame »

Cathleen Kaveny

« Summer of Shame: American Catholics and the Latest Wave of the Abuse Crisis »

Thierry-Marie Courau, Susan Abraham, Mile Babić

Concilium 2019-2. Populismus und Religion
Concilium 2019-2. Populism and religion
Concilium 2019-2. Religiones y populismo
Concilium 2019-2. Populismo e religione
Concilium 2019-2. Religions et populisme
Concilium 2019-2. Populismo e religião

A new wave of the clergy sex abuse crisis has crashed upon the American shore, prompting unprecedented levels of anguish and disgust among Catholics in the United States. Some commentators have wondered, why now? What is different about this wave? After all, it is not as if anything truly new has appeared. We have long known that about five to seven percent of the priests in the U.S. have abused minors, generally but not always adolescent boys. We have long realized that their episcopal superiors have covered up their behavior, frequently reassigning them to a new parish after a short stint in a rehabilitation facility. And we understand that the rates of abuse have been sharply reduced since 2002, when the U.S. bishops adopted a number of stringent protective and reporting measures.

So what accounts for the current levels of pain and outrage? In my view, the latest wave of the crisis has prompted many American Catholics to undergo what the philosopher of science Thomas S. Kuhn has called a “paradigm shift” in their view of the Church.[1] Recent revelations have forced many Catholics in the pews to radically reframe how they interpret the events that have taken place. Rather than seeing it as an aberration, which can be fixed, they are now beginning to see it as an intrinsic and possibly ineradicable part of the global Catholic culture.

1. The Clergy Sex Abuse Crisis in the American Catholic Consciousness

How did American Catholics get to this point? While there had been prior incidents of abuse that received some publicity,[2] the clergy sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church truly exploded in the American consciousness in 2001, when the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team broke the story about serial sex abuser and former diocesan priest John J. Geoghan, then on trial in Massachusetts for sexual assault.[3] It boggled the reader’s mind that priests like John Geoghan could sexually assault young children. Even more troubling, however, was the fact that members of the hierarchy like Cardinal Bernard Law had covered up and even enabled such abuse.

The 2001 crisis began to abate after the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” in Dallas, Texas in September 2002.[4] They also commissioned a third-party report (the “John Jay Report”) that allowed everyone to get a better sense of the problem.[5] Over the past fifteen years, the Church in the United States slowly began to heal. The laity developed the sense that the bishops understood the problem, the victims were being treated justly, and the newly implemented reforms were effective. We had the sense that the worst was behind us. Active lay Catholics began to turn our attention to other things.

2. Summer of Shame

That sense of relative peace and slow progress was shattered by two events that occurred the summer of 2018. In June, news broke that Theodore McCarrick, the former Cardinal Archbishop of Washington DC, had been removed from public ministry after being credibly abused of molesting a teenager nearly five decades ago while serving as a priest in New York.[6] The next month brought a new set of allegations against the Cardinal, which claimed that he sexually harassed adult seminarians under his authority.[7] A second big blow to American Catholics came in August. The Attorney General of Pennsylvania released the report of a two-year grand jury investigation of six of the eight Pennsylvania dioceses.[8] It showed that over a seventy year period, 301 priests were accused of sexually abusing more than 1,000 children, mostly boys, in the six dioceses. When their crimes became known, they were moved to another parish, rather than removed from the priesthood or reported to the authorities.[9] Both of these blows were exacerbated by a splenetic attack on Pope Francis’s handling of the sex abuse situation penned by Carlo Maria Viganò, the former apostolic nuncio to the United States, with the help of a conservative Italian journalist opposed to Francis’s program of reform.[10]

Despite the fact that Viganò’s case quickly unraveled,[11] American conservatives seized upon him to help promote their interpretation of the crisis: they claimed that its root cause was a culture of rampant homosexuality in the Church. More progressive Catholics, in contrast, accepted the John Jay Report’s conclusion that the root cause was not homosexual priests. Instead they saw the problem as rampant clericalism. Ordinary Catholics in the pews, who had not read either the John Jay Report or the Viganò letter, were caught in the crossfire. The sex abuse crisis fueled the polarization among American Catholics, which both reflected and fed the polarization in American society at large prompted by the Trump presidency.

Moreover, the events of the summer of 2018 were not interpreted by American Catholics in isolation. It had by now become clear that clergy sexual abuse of minors was a global problem. International news revealed wave after wave of clergy sexual abuse and misconduct around the world, in Australia, Chile, France, Germany, Ireland, and other countries.

3. A Troubling Paradigm Shift

Some commentators have wondered why the events of the summer of 2018—the summer of shame—have precipitated such existential anguish among American Catholics. After all, careful scrutiny of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report did not reveal anything that had not been unearthed by the John Jay Report fifteen years earlier. Moreover, the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report reported a sharp drop-off in credible accusations after 2002, when the Dallas norms went into effect. So in some ways, the news is good.

In my view, asking the question in such a manner leads down the wrong path. Recent events are not significant because they added more data to be absorbed by the American Catholic populace. Instead, they matter because they caused a drastic shift in the way that data is organized and understood. They precipitated what Thomas Kuhn calls a “paradigm shift,” roughly analogous to the shift from a Ptolemaic to a Copernican way of viewing the universe. 

Until 2018, many ordinary Catholics saw the crisis as a terrible but ultimately manageable problem. It involved a very small number of disturbed clergy. Their secretive and twisted activities were enabled by overly naïve bishops who wrongly believed them to be cured, or overly cowardly bishops who did not want to bring shame to the Church by exposing their crimes. In this interpretive frame, the clergy sex abuse crisis was essentially a problem of psychosexual sickness and/or immaturity (on the part of the offending priests) and moral weakness (on the part of the offending bishops). While undeniably abhorrent, the problem could be solved by better screening and formation in the seminaries, more rigorous reporting and accountability on the part of the hierarchy, and utter transparency about successes and failures. 

But now, many American Catholics are beginning to read the very same data in a quite different manner. As much as they would like to believe to the contrary, they are coming to see the child sex abuse crisis not as an aberration, but as a manifestation of something both terrible and fundamental about the character of the Church. Catholics who experience themselves as undergoing this paradigm shift find themselves confronting a deeply threatening question. If the patterns of sexual abuse they have seen are not an aberration, but are instead an expected, tolerated, and even accepted part of the operation, what else has to be true about the Church? There are several possible answers to that question, but they all boil down to one appalling insight: Jesus Christ has nothing to do with the life of the Church. It is not, actually, his body. Priests and bishops act in his name, and invoke his authority, but never actually behave in the manner Jesus acts in the Gospels.

4. Grappling with the New Paradigm

American Catholics are losing heart. They may be losing their faith, not necessarily in Jesus Christ, but in the Roman Catholic Church as the Body of Christ, as community that offers communion with the divine. In the best of time, fostering confidence in the importance of the Church’s role is problematic, because American culture is so thoroughly permeated by an individualistic account of faith that reflects its Protestant heritage. Addressing the latest wave of the crisis will require grappling with the challenges posed by this paradigm shift. What will this involve?

New procedures of dealing with abuse claims that are characterized by rigor, transparency, and accountability are an important part of the solution—but they are only part of it. Reforming the culture of the church to incorporate more respect and cooperation between clergy and laity is part of the solution—but again, only part of it. Articulating the requirements of just relationships between the powerful and the vulnerable is also part of the solution, but just a part of it as well.  A lasting and comprehensive response, it seems to me, will require grappling with the emerging paradigm produced by the summer of shame. That will be a task not only for lawyers and ethicists, but also for systematic theologians, ecclesiologists, and liturgists. 

More specifically, I think that addressing the theological and ecclesiological aspects of the crisis is necessary if any legal, moral, and cultural responses are to be effective in the long run. One necessary change will cut deep. Catholic theologians have long taught that the Church, as the bride of Christ, was sinless, without spot or stain. Individual members of the Church could and did sin—but those sins were their own fault, and could not be attributed to the collective body.  Addressing this crisis adequately will require the Church to rethink this position. Just as Germany had to take collective responsibility for the atrocities of the Third Reich, and the United States still must grapple with its collective responsibility for slavery, so too the Church must take collective responsibility for the sex abuse crisis. That will require some hard theological and ecclesiological reflection about the ways in which the Church is the Whore of Babylon—not merely the Bride of Christ.


[1] Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3rd ed. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

[2] The first highly publicized clergy sex abuse case broke open in the 1990’s; it involved former priest James R. Porter. See, e.g., Alison Bass, “Nine Allege Priest Abused Them, Threaten to Sue Church,” Boston Globe, May 8, 1992,

[3] Michael Rezendes et al. (the Globe Spotlight team), “Church Allowed Abuse by Priest for Years: Aware of Geoghan Record, Archdiocese Still Shuttled Him from Parish to Parish,” Boston Globe, January 6, 2002 (part 1); and Sacha Pfeiffer et al (the Globe Spotlight team), “Goeghan Preferred Preying on Poorer Children,” Boston Globe, January 7, 2002 (part 2). 

[4] United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Promise to Protect, Pledge to Heal: Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, Essential Norms for Diocesan/ Eparchial Policies Dealing with Allegations of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Priests or Deacons, and A Statement of Episcopal Commitment” (rev. June 2018),

[5] United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, “The Nature and Scope of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests and Deacons in the United States 1950‒2002 (the “John Jay Report”), June 2002,

[6] Laurie Goodstein and Sharon Otterman, “American Cardinal Accused of Sexually Abusing Minor Is Removed From Ministry,” New York Times, June 20, 2018, ://

[7] Laurie Goodstein and Sharon Otterman, “He Preyed on Men Who Wanted to Be Priests. Then He Became a Cardinal,” New York Times, July 16, 2018,

[8] Attorney General of Pennsylvania, “Pennsylvania Diocese Victims Report” (August 14, 2018),

[9] Alex Johnson, “After Shocking Catholic Abuse Report, the Law Can Do Little—For Now,” NBC News, August 15, 2018,

[10] Jason Horowitz, “The Man Who Took On Pope Francis: The Story Behind the Viganò Letter,” New York Times, August 28, 2018,

[11] See, e.g., Laurie Goodstein and Jason Horowitz, “If Cardinal Was Under Pope’s Sanctions, Why Was He Allowed at Gala Events?,” New York Times, September 1, 2018,


Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor of Law and Theology at Boston College. She earned her J.D. and her Ph.D. in religious ethics from Yale University. She is the 2018-2019 Cary and Ann Maguire Chair in Ethics and American History at the.Kluge Center at the Library of Congress, where she is working on a book on complicity with wrongdoing.  Her most recent book is Ethics at the Edges of Law: Christian Moralists and American Legal Thought(Oxford University Press, 2018). 

Address:  Department of Theology, Boston College – 310 Stokes N, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467.