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April 24, 2024 – “Impact of the Sex Abuse Crisis on Ecclesial Moral Authority and Lay Moral Agency”

Emma McDonald Kennedy, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics, Dept. of Theology and Religious Studies, Villanova University
6:30-7:30 p.m., Tolentine 215

Drawing on analysis of in-depth interviews with U.S. Catholics who have experienced infertility, this lecture will consider how the sexual abuse crisis affected lay perceptions of the Catholic Church as a moral authority on reproductive issues. Further, it will consider how research that reveals the structural causes of the abuse crisis related to sex, gender, and power can inform theological conceptualizations of moral agency in reproductive ethics.


Past Events

Presented by Massimo Faggioli, Ph.D. From the first revelations in the 1980s to the latest phases of the abuse scandal in the Catholic Church in the 2020s, our understanding of the nature of the crisis has evolved, also thanks to major cultural and theological shifts: sexual abuse and different kinds of abuse; a theology of childhood; the concept of vulnerability; and the colonial factor.

The sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church has been framed as a legal issue that requires internal structural and canonical reform. Scant attention has been paid, however, to the way in which the discipline of theology has unwittingly fostered a climate of adultism and the marginalization of children. Sandra Hassink, M.D., a longtime advocate for children, past president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, and current Ph.D. student in the Theology and Religious Studies Department at Villanova University believes that the only way to achieve genuine, effective reform in the Church is to consciously develop a theology of the child, which puts the welfare of children front and center on the Church’s radar screen.

Dr. Donna Freitas’ personal story of being abused, which is recounted in Consent: A Memoir of Unwanted Attention (Little, Brown and Company, 2019), occurred at a Catholic university when she was enrolled as a graduate theology student, which left her feeling abandoned by the Catholic theological community precisely when she needed its support the most. Dr. Freitas will use her story of abuse to identify structural issues within the theological community that need sustained attention, as well as suggest various reforms that will help the theological community recognize, support, and be a compassionate presence to its members suffering from abuse.

Dr. Kathleen Holscher recently launched a new website, Desolate Country (, which maps Catholic sexual abuse in Native America. In her webinar she will explore clusters of sexual abuse and why they occurred in specific locations, what these clusters suggest about the causes and character of the abuse that occurred, and what the Catholic Church needs to do in order to prevent these abuses from occurring in the future.

Brian J. Clites, Ph.D., Associate Director, Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities

Senior Instructor, Case Western Reserve University, Department of Religious Studies

Catholic survivors place a special emphasis on speaking and listening, and adult survivors often describe feeling “revictimized" when we don’t act upon the information they have told us. This dynamic dates back half a century, when the first American Catholic survivors who spoke out were bullied and ignored. This lecture provides that historical context and explains practical strategies for listening with our whole hearts and minds when a survivor chooses to share their experiences of abuse.

During the last three years, the Notre Dame Folk Choir, in collaboration with artists and theologians, has collectively created an original ritualization of the Passion based on Scripture, tradition, and the lived experiences of the students and professionals involved. This project seeks to enable young people, within a ministerial environment, to contemplate the difficult questions that they’re longing to ask and talk about, most especially issues surrounding clergy sexual abuse, care for our common home, and social justice. This webinar will feature Dr. J.J. Wright, Director of the ND Folk Choir; Tristan Cooley, poet and librettist; and students from the Folk Choir. The discussion will center around the Passion, the creative process, and its intersection with communal grief and healing in the wake of the Clergy Sexual Abuse Crisis. The Passion performance will premiere during a tour of the East Coast in March, including a performance at St. Thomas of Villanova Parish on Tuesday, March 8 at 7pm.

 Stephen Kent, Ph.D., University of Alberta

Dr. Stephen Kent, Ph.D., of the University of Alberta, has twice received a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council grant to study sects, cults, and new religions in Canada and the United States, which has allowed him to amass one of North America’s largest collections on alternative religions. His recent work on the grooming of children for sexual abuse in religious settings shows how uniquely religious considerations facilitate the grooming of children, which often differs markedly from sexual abuse occurring in secular settings.

Janet Heimlich is an award-winning journalist and the author of Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment, the first book to fully examine the issue of child abuse and neglect enabled by religious belief. Bishop John Shelby Spong described it as "insightful, provocative, exposing," and novelist Anne Rice called it "well researched and well written.” In 2012, Janet founded the Child-Friendly Faith Project, mission of which is to share knowledge and build community around the issue of religious child maltreatment (RCM) and advocate for and empower those whose lives are impacted by RCM. Prior to becoming a child advocate, Janet was a freelance reporter for National Public Radio, work which won her numerous journalism awards. She graduated from Stanford University with a B.A. in communications and a minor in English. Janet lives in Austin, Texas, with her teenage daughter.  This webinar is free and open to the public.

Eliana Dockterman is a staff writer for Time magazine in New York City who covers a broad range of topics including culture, society, gender, and feminism.  Her work on the Boy Scouts of America sexual abuse scandal was instrumental in raising public awareness of the pattern of abuse at the heart of this storied American institution.  This webinar is free and open to the public.

Scholars of law, theology, and philosophy will come together for a day-long virtual conference to explore issues surrounding the modern Catholic Church today in wake of the sexual abuse crisis.

Sponsored by the Eleanor H. McCullen Center for Law, Religion and Public Policy and the Villanova University Department of Philosophy, the conference will feature 29 sessions with subject matter experts and religious leaders.

Massimo Faggioli, Ph.D., Villanova University, and Mary Catherine O'Reilly-Gindhart '12 CLAS, '13 MAT, professor at Cabrini University and PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow

They will share some preliminary findings of their research for an essay to be published in early 2021 that examines the most significant publications on theology and the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church from 2018 to 2020.

Cindy Christian, M.D., Anthony A. Latini Endowed Chair in Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention, The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia

Villanova University, Driscoll Hall Auditorium

Hans Zollner, S.J., Ph.D., Professor of Psychology and President of the Center for Child Protection, Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome.

Combating sexual abuse and working for a safer church needs the commitment of many actors in church and society. A change of attitude is on the way, but it is slow to develop. Addressing obstacles and recognizing signs of hope are both crucial in this journey.  This ACS-approved, free event is open to the public. Please pre-register for the event, as space may be limited, at A press release is available at This event is sponsored by the Office of the President, Center for Church Management, Campus Ministry, Department of Theology & Religious Studies and the University Task Force on the Sexual Abuse Crisis.

Villanova University, Bartley Hall, Room 1011

Panelists: Catherine Clifford, Ph.D., Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology, St. Paul University, Canada,  Richard Lennan, Th.D. Professor of Systematic Theology and Professor Ordinarius, Boston College, The Rev. Ormond Rush, STD, M.Ed., Associate Professor, Australian Catholic University. Moderator: Massimo Faggioli, Ph.D., Professor of Theology and Religious Studies, Villanova University. Sponsored in part by Raskob Foundation and GHR Foundation.

Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law, Room 101

Richard Lennan, Th.D., Professor of Systematic Theology and Professor Ordinarius, Boston College.

Contact Information

If you have any questions about the task force, or if you would like to have an event sponsored by the task force, please contact chair Massimo Faggioli, Ph.D.