Fides et Ratio and Clergy Abuse: A Look at Public Health Models

By: Sarah Moon

“Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.”
-Pope John Paul II (Fides et Ratio)

Catholicism has a rich history in the sciences, and Catholics must be mindful of this history, particularly as the Church confronts challenging times such as the present. Pope John Paul II spoke extensively about how faith and reason must operate in tandem with one another. This premise reigns true once again while processing the continued clergy abuse crisis occurring in our Catholic family today.

In the public health field, prevention is the gold standard. However, humans often fall short in the application of public health interventions, particularly when we lack money, time, labor, etc. Whatever the reason, humans are nowhere near perfect in preventing disease, evil, and injustice. Many might argue that humans are notoriously bad at it. Whatever camp you fall into, we are called by God to do better, and we can do better. With clergy abuse on the docket as the most pressing issue in the Catholic Church right now, a look at how diocesan level prevention could be implemented is much needed.

To apply faith and reason in this scenario, we should consider evidence-based public health interventions for the prevention of sexual violence, alongside prayer and thoughtful discernment of church teaching. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a comprehensive, evidence-based guide for strategies to prevent sexual violence called STOP SV, which is an acronym that will be explained in further detail soon (steps are bolded below). On September 10th of this year, a letter was delivered to Archbishop Hebda from the young adults of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis detailing our call to action in response to the abuse crises (full letter here). Included was a list of eight recommendations (which are italicized below) that were carefully researched and compiled. Let’s look at how YArespond’s letter marries the Catholic tradition of faith and reason in light of the clergy abuse crisis and the most recent research in public health:

1. Promote Social Norms that Protect Against Violence. Restrive and harmful social norms in communities enable a wide span of violence. Many are calling for a Church where victim-survivors can speak up and be supported and hear, and I also believe that the Church has the potential to create a safe space for people to be heard so that we, as the Church, can be more vigilant and attentive to stereotypical abusive behavior. Bystanders that allow violence or are indifferent to it have no place in active ministry or church-related jobs. Right now the Church addresses this through VIRTUS training, but YArespond believes there is more to be done.

Our letter stresses the continued education for clergy, church leaders, and seminarians about recent research addressing the dynamics of abuse. We believe that by reducing ignorance and increasing awareness in the bystander population, we can create a network of knowledgeable individuals more capable of spotting and responding to common signs of abuse. Another proposed action would be to conduct an audit of the information our Archdiocese provided to the self-reported data used in the John Jay study in 2003-2004. The original study relied on self-reporting of abuse allegations by dioceses which might or might not be completely accurate. Through an audit, we would improve the data we provided to encourage the open sharing of information and increasing transparency within our local community. Additionally, we offer a recommendation for all Church leaders throughout our Archdiocese to, “take personal responsibility for these crises and publicly accept the moral guilt associated with the sins of our clergy and Archdiocesan leaders.”

This action of public proclamation will help to promote the Church’s social norm of forgiveness, mercy, charity, and safety for all God’s children. From the CDC’s perspective, potential outcomes include but not limited to, reductions in negative bystander behavior and increased recognition of abusive behavior.

2. Teach Skills to Prevent Sexual Violence. This is a big one to unpack. Think very preventive here. The CDC’s study discusses four individual skills that would help to prevent violence. Social-emotional learning skills (empathy, conflict management, and communication), healthy dating skills, healthy sexuality, and empowerment skills. A knee-jerk reaction may be to shy away from this because it can open up awkward conversations with children, but I don’t think that has to be the case at all. In fact, I believe that the Catholic Church has the most beautiful and comprehensive teaching on sexuality and relationships. For example, Theology of the Body was a masterpiece given to us by the late Pope John Paul II in the last 30 years to address love and self-gift in the context of human sexuality. We can continue to draw on these teachings to more fully live out our different vocations of love.

YArespond emphasizes a number of ways to teach social-emotional skills. One was discussed above, but we also push for research efforts. More specifically, we recommend to “conduct a survey on the awareness of lay persons regarding the changes to Archdiocesan policies over the last four years on reporting cases of clerical abuse.” By doing so the Archdiocese will be able to evaluate if their communications plan regarding abuse guidelines is working or not. Parishioners need to be educated on both preventing abuse as well as reporting it. Over time, the Church will be able to monitor the effectiveness of their safeguards that have been put in place over time to best teach skills in the prevention of further violence.

3. Provide Opportunities to Empower and Support Girls and Women. For the church’s purposes, I would expand this to include men, and specifically lay men and women. The CDC’s research highlights that gender inequality in leadership and civic participation enables violence against women to occur at higher rates. By providing opportunities for participation within the church’s leadership, we could help reduce sexual harassment and increase transparency by having more people take an active role in their faith and church.

YArespond sees this through increasing financial transparency and accountability by involving more of the laity on finance councils and providing avenues for laity to be involved with the assignment and evaluation of priests in their parish. What this really boils down to is that we would like to see all members of the Church, laity, consecrated, and clergy play a role in church leadership.

4. Create Protective Environments. This is an area of research that is still developing, and less is known about community-level approaches vs. individual-level approaches. However, the CDC provides some helpful examples for this claim: “Such approaches can involve, for example, changes to policies, institutional structures, or the social or physical environment in an effort to reduce rick characteristics and increase protective factors that affect the entire community.” In a way, the U.S. Church has seen this evolve over time. From the Dallas Charter of 2002 to the recent general assembly in Baltimore and even the upcoming February meeting in Rome with the Pope, we are seeing church leaders trying to create protective environments.

I believe we don’t have to wait for our U.S. bishops to take some steps in improving safety. though. Our whole letter offers a way for our Archdiocese to create a more protective environment. Granted, we have taken many steps in the last four years, but to be an example for other dioceses means maintaining those safeguards, evaluating them to see whether they are working as we expected, and making them known to all parishioners.

5. Support Victims/Survivors to Lessen Harms. Having victim-centered services and treatment for victims is a necessary facet to stopping sexual violence. These services promote physical and emotional healing, but we first need to shed light and empower people to come forward.

YArespond provides the recommendation of lifting all confidentiality provisions of past settlements with survivors in a very public way. This would provide survivors with the right to speak freely about the abuse they endured if they so choose. Along with that, reopening the 2014 Archbishop Nienstedt investigation in our own Archdiocese would allow the extent of the allegations and truth about the original investigation to be uncovered. Additionally, having priests publicly accept moral guilt would be an act of solidarity with survivors. Saying “we are sorry” and “we will walk with you” on survivors’ path to healing can be powerful, but we all must ask for forgiveness first.

I recently met a woman who asked me: “There are outlets for physical and emotional healing, but what about spiritual healing?” How can the Church be a source of spiritual healing for victim-survivors of clergy abuse when the abuse happened in the name of Jesus Christ? Like any other organization or individual, YArespond and I, personally, will never have a complete answer for her. But we must be willing to engage with anyone and everyone that will help us better understand our crisis and promote comprehensive healing for all.

With all that being said, I hope this article sparks conversations within your own social circles on how you can help your own parish or diocese heal from this crisis. This is by no means a comprehensive or exhaustive list, but it is a start. As a Church, we are called to go in peace and serve the Lord.


YArespond is a group of Catholic young adults based in the Twin Cities seeking informed and holistic ways to respond to the abuse crises in our Church. We focus on a fourfold response consisting of prayer, education, dialogue, and action. Currently, we are working on developing resources for parishes and ministries to host events and dialogues. Learn more: