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Notre Dame professors tackle church crisis
in game-day lectures

By Ann Carey
Catholic News Service

University of Notre Dame theology professors John Cavadini and Father Richard McBrien and law professor Carol Mooney weighed in on the debate on the current sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church before a standing-room-only crowd on campus Sept. 14.

Their presentations were part of Notre Dame's Saturday Scholar Series of faculty lectures, which begin three-and-a-half hours before kickoff on home football game days. It is the second year for the Saturday Scholar Series, which is geared toward Notre Dame alumni and open to the public.

Mooney talked about the work of a university committee appointed by Notre Dame's president, Holy Cross Father Edward Malloy, to offer advice to the U.S. bishops on the abuse scandal. Also an associate provost at the university, Mooney was chairwoman of the committee, made up of 11 faculty members and administrators.

In discussions she described as "frank and forthcoming," Mooney said her committee hammered out a document presented to the bishops prior to their June meeting in Dallas. She reported that many bishops expressed appreciation for the document, and the committee hopes to continue to offer bishops the help of Notre Dame experts.

Mooney said the committee concluded that the "greatest scandal" was the misuse of episcopal power in covering up abuse and transferring perpetrators. She said the bishops did adopt some policies similar to the recommendations of the Notre Dame document, such as reaching out to victims, working to restore the morale of priests and improving seminary screening.

However, on the issue of zero tolerance, the committee had suggested a different approach from the one eventually adopted by the bishops in Dallas.

Mooney said her committee had recommended a "one-strike-you're-out" policy for present or future abuse cases. But on allegations of past abuse, she said, the committee felt they need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis because it is difficult to determine what actually happened 20 to 30 years ago.

Father McBrien said some Catholics insist that the current crisis was caused by lack of fidelity to church teachings on human sexuality and that offenders are homosexuals encouraged by liberal seminary faculties.

Actual data refutes such a superficial or ideological analysis, he said, because sexual abuse is caused by deeper, compulsive and addictive behavior and by the "mystery of evil."

If dissent were the cause of sexual abuse, Father McBrien continued, then "why are orthodox priests and bishops also engaged in it?" And if sexual abuse is linked with homosexuality, "what evidence is there that liberals are more inclined to be gay?" he asked.

Cavadini, chairman of the theology department and director of Notre Dame's Institute for Church Life, said all sides in the church recognize that reform is needed in the wake of the sexual abuse scandals.

The only controversy is over what shape that reform should take and what issues should be addressed, he said.

The issue of accountability used to polarize people, Cavadini continued, because liberals wanted a more democratic church, while conservatives pointed out the church is not a democracy. Now, he said, both sides are calling for accountability.

But accountability and authority need not be pitted against each other, he said, adding that accountability might render a renewed authority more credible.

"The essential issue is not democracy vs. autocracy," Cavadini said, "for democracies can lose credibility, too, but rather what structures allow the sort of meaningful input and visibility that engender trust."

Cavadini said arguments over reform of the priesthood have exacerbated old debates over complex issues such as celibacy, ordination of women, seminary formation, homosexuals in the priesthood, clericalism and dissent from church teachings. Discussion is needed on these issues, he said.

However, Cavadini added, "In times of scandal it is good to remember that the Catholic Church is an article of faith. ... Just as the problem of evil does not do away with faith in God, but calls it forth, so scandal in the church does not do away with faith in the church, but calls it forth."