skip to main content

Taking Responsibility: Fordham Teams with Jesuit Partners to Examine Sexual Abuse Crisis


It’s been a year and a half since the Society of Jesus in the United States publicly disclosed the names of its members who were credibly accused of sexually abusing minors. Even before the disclosure, professors from several Jesuit institutions of higher education were examining the crisis from an academic standpoint. Now, through a new grant from a private foundation, nearly $1 million received on July 1 will allow Fordham to take the lead in a new effort to address the crisis by supporting projects at four Jesuit universities and awarding six research grants to Fordham faculty.

The interdisciplinary initiative, called “Taking Responsibility,” is a partnership between the Francis and Ann Curran Center for American Catholic Studies and the Department of Theology. Bradford Hinze, Ph.D., the Karl Rahner Professor of Theology, directs the project with leadership assistance from Patrick Hornbeck, Ph.D., special faculty advisor to the provost for strategic planning; Theology Department Chair Christine Firer Hinze, Ph.D.; Michael E. Lee, Ph.D., director of the Curran Center for American Catholic Studies; and Catherine Osborne, Ph.D., GSAS ’13, as coordinator for the program.

“The projects and studies being supported by the Taking Responsibility initiative reflect current trends in interdisciplinary research,” said Hinze. “By focusing on Jesuit educational institutions in the U.S., these efforts will make an important contribution to our understanding of the phenomenon of clergy sexual abuse in this particular setting. The Taking Responsibility website will provide an active center for those interested in the current state of research and practical resources on these issues”.

The effort has been collaborative from the start, said the project staff. The steering committee was composed of various Fordham faculty truly invested in taking responsibility and faced the painful issue head-on internally. Members did not shy away from exposing abuse, but many also believed that institution and its structures were ultimately about faith and personal responsibility.

“The project acknowledges that not only is there a need for a multidisciplinary approach, but also and especially the victim-survivors of abuse, must be at the table to help Jesuit schools, colleges, and universities become safer, more transparent institutions,” said Hornbeck.

While the project’s website has been launched, the real activity begins this fall when announcements will be made about upcoming panels, webinars, reading groups, and a variety of events that will highlight the interdisciplinary nature of the grantees’ research.

Some of the funding tied to the four partner-institution projects will go toward established research, such as Georgetown University’s work with survivors that will “inform, educate, and foster institutional change” through the university’s Initiative on Catholic Thought and Public Life and the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs.

Gonzaga University will use its funding to create an inaugural conference for researchers to be held during the 2021-2022 academic year. That project will home in on cutting-edge research that exposes sexual abuse in the Jesuit West Province, where Native American and Alaskan Native communities were disproportionately abused. Though the conference highlights abuse in a specific region and on a particular population, the Gonzaga conversation will likely widen to explore why the abuse often affects under-recognized communities nationwide, including, but not limited to Black, Latinx, and working-class populations.

Other partnering universities include Santa Clara University and Xavier University in Cincinnati.

Those outcomes will include creating literature reviews and other resources intended for administrators, staff, faculty, alumni, and students at Jesuit institutions. Another expansive goal is to create a Jesuit partner network dedicated to confronting the causes and legacy of clergy sexual abuse.

“Equally important, the initiative is an occasion for the formation of a network of Jesuit universities and high schools that can promote among participants in these institutions open discussion, deeper understanding, and shared practical wisdom about how these issues can be addressed by all those involved,” said Hinze.   

A quick glance at the Fordham research projects reflects participants’ deep and varied understanding of the Society of Jesus as well as organizational structures. One study’s cross-disciplinary investigators include C. Colt Anderson, Ph.D., professor of Christian spirituality at the Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education; Henry Schwalbenberg Ph.D., professor of economics and director of the graduate program in International Political Economy and Development; and Michael Pirson, Ph.D., associate professor of humanistic management at the Gabelli School of Business. Their exploration is unflinchingly titled “Identifying and Reforming Institutions in Jesuit Schools and Universities That Foster Sexual Abuse and Its Concealment.”

“The causes of the Catholic sexual abuse crises are multiple and intersecting.  Understanding the pathologies that motivated both abusers and those who concealed their crimes requires us to draw insights from the study of religion, psychology, civil and criminal law, organizational theory, communications, and many other fields,” said Hornbeck.

Scholarship has long had the ability to help expose structural inequities and abuse. Project staff noted that the academy took on structural racism many years before the nation began to seriously examine its role through the Black Lives Matter movement. Likewise, scholarship can help expose structural sex abuse within the Jesuit order and beyond. Not only will the project take on how clericalism may have fostered the abuse, but it will also examine how that same culture could spill over to create an environment of abuse among lay faculty and staff.

“We need to look at the patterns of behavior that may make bad behaviors seem OK; this is about power,” said Osborne. “It’s also about the Catholic Church, our religious orders, procedures, and structures. Not every instance of sexual abuse at Jesuit institutions is committed by priests, so in the Jesuit tradition of taking care of the whole person, we need to deal with this sinful part of us is in the same way.”



Comments are closed.