Panelists at a St. Mary’s University symposium Thursday discussed what still needs to be done at the local, national, and global level to address the sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church.

The panel of lay and religious people participating in The Crossroads Symposium, the inaugural event of St. Mary’s recently established Center for Catholic Studies, agreed that children needed to be at the center of policy and culture changes within the Catholic Church.

Since 2002, sexual abuse allegations have continued to surface across the globe, prompting an examination of how accusations were handled by the church. The majority of the occurrences were from 25 to as many as 60 years ago.

“Clergy sexual abuse of minors is a global issue,” said St. Mary’s President Thomas Mengler, who moderated the discussion.

Father Ron Rolheiser, president of the Oblate School of Theology, said working with victims of clergy sexual abuse gave him a first-hand look at the lasting damage of such abuse.

“I always thought [victim impact statements] were exaggerated until I began to work with survivors,” he said. “I found out they are not exaggerated. They are understated in terms of … there is no such thing as minor sexual abuse.”

To move forward, the church needs women in chancery offices, not just in consulting roles, but with real decision-making power, Rolheiser argued.

“We [priests] don’t have kids. We didn’t think of the kids first,” said Rolheiser. “If women and men with children had held decisional power in chancery offices, the cover-up wouldn’t have been what it was.”

(left) Father Ron Rolheiser, president of the Oblate School of Theology

He pointed to the necessary change in the church that would make this possible.

“We need to change canon law,” he said. “Right now, the way it’s written you have to be ordained to have decisional power, which excludes all women.”

Deacon Bernard Nojadera, director of the U.S. Bishops Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection, said that as the church moves forward with policy changes, ensuring safe environments, and providing background checks before placing priests or other personnel in parishes, it must also look at changing church culture.

As church leaders discuss budgets, personnel, and other routine matters, said Nojadera, “Let’s put the child at the center of the conversation. That has to always be the motivation of what we do and why we do in terms of carrying out and promoting safe environment.”

In 2018, the Archdiocese of San Antonio formed an independent commission, chaired by retired Chief Justice of the Texas Fourth District Court of Appeals Catherine Stone, that reviewed approximately 140 claims of sexual abuse involving 130 victims and 50 clerics.The commission, made up of lay people, released a report in January examining abuse reports made against local priests and recommending policy changes.

“I would have to say that in terms of changing norms and attitudes going forward, I would remind you that people are very protective of their priest,” said Stone. “It’s not just how priest and bishops look at what the appropriate treatment or response is, it’s also from us as human beings. We do need to put the child, the victim, at the center of that conversation.”

Catherine Stone, retired Chief Justice of the Fourth District Court of Appeals, responds to a question posed by moderator and St. Mary’s University President Thomas Mengler.

The commission recommended that one of the things that needed to change going forward was the ability of church organizations to communicate across all levels and across all different entities.

Stone laid out that the religious orders should communicate with the Archdiocese to ensure that the Archdiocese would not be receiving a priest from an order to work in the diocese and not have background information about him. Likewise, the Archdiocese should not return that clergy member to his order without informing the order about any problems that had arisen.

Patti Waller Koo, a local member the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests (SNAP), pointed to progress made by the Archdiocese in facilitating reports of abuse.

“I think one the chief concerns that we [SNAP] have is the reporting process, and that was definitely addressed,” she said.

The Archdiocese announced the implementation of a third-party system to report abuse on May 30. The third-party website, EthicsPoint, is operated by Navex Global. Reports are kept confidential and distributed via a secure portal to Archdiocese officials responsible for investigating abuse.

However, Waller said there were still concerns about the potential for cover-ups. “That information still goes to the Archdiocese’s [Office of Victim Assistance and Safe Environment],” she said. “It needs to go to the police department first.” 

Tim Hernandez is a freelance journalist in the San Antonio area. His latest aspiration is to teach journalism and English at the high school level in the next few years.