A publication of Sacred Heart University
Christian Love into Civic Action: Clues from Sociology
Francis in Canada: When Symbols Are More Powerful than Words

Atonement for Abuse Demands Reforming the Church

Days away from Pope Francis’ long-awaited visit, after the horrific discovery of unmarked graves at Indian Residential Schools, in Canada we are bombarded by media coverage of tragic survivor stories and old film footage with unsmiling students under the watchful eyes of nuns. There is understandable outrage and intense scrutiny of abuse of the vulnerable by and in the Church.

As a pediatrician and Religious Sister, I have worked for over 40 years to heal and protect the victims of child sexual abuse in Church and society. Today we know that the sexual abuse of minors in homes and safe places by trusted adults can cause profound, often life-long, physical, psychological and emotional damage. Victims of clergy abuse can also feel violated and abandoned by God. The trauma can paralyze the development of moral identity, character and faith. We have learned to our shame that the sexual abuse by clergy is, first and foremost, the abuse of power, position and conscience.

Survivors of residential schools in Canada, the U.S., Australia and Ireland also experienced forced Christianization and the loss of families and culture. I weep at knowing that sick and dying children were without the love and support of their parents.

Pope Francis acknowledges the profound harms of abuse and declared that “There is work needed to make amends in the care of those harmed and in the repair of toxic culture and practices. We must ‘undertake a resolute process of discernment, purification and reform.’” (Evangelium Gaudii 2013 #27).

In 2014 he established the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors to break the silence and denial which have characterized Church response. He has worked tirelessly in developing canons, policies and protocols to deal with abuse and extending protection from minors to vulnerable adults. Come una madre amorevole, (2016) declares protection of children a duty of all in the Church. Vos estis lux mundi (2019) holds bishops and religious superiors accountable for misconduct, mismanagement and cover-up and sets an obligation to establish offices for victim assistance and reporting of cases.

The 2021 Book 6 Code of Canon Law new focus on “vulnerable persons” raises broader issues of power. Pope Francis’s Pentecost 2022 apostolic constitution Praedicate Evangelium is a revolutionary reform of the Curia situating it “at the service of the Church and world” and calls for the restoration of a culture of servant leadership.

Despite this work, denial, abuse and mismanagement continue across the globe confirming that policies and protocols are necessary but not worth the paper, or tablets of stone, they are written on without conversion of minds and hearts. Pope Francis notes wisely “Changing structures without generating new convictions and attitudes will only ensure that those structures will become, sooner or later, corrupt, oppressive and ineffective.” (E.G. #189.)

Rebuilding the Church to atone for sexual and cultural abuse is not a cosmetic exercise. The Church is not a simple “fixer-upper” in the home improvement jargon. It is in need of urgent foundational repair. Personal and ecclesial discernment is essential to identifying the underlying systemic and cultural beliefs and practices that are in need of reform to the “mind of Christ.”

Pope Francis’ synodal project has identified key issues in need of discernment and action:

Restore the loving Triune and radically equal non-hierarchical God revealed in Jesus’ life, death and Resurrection.

Reclaim the primary understanding of the Church as the Body of Christ and the People of God who journey together.

Repair Church structures and a kenotic vision of authority to serve the contemporary Church and form true “missionary disciples” promoting social and restorative justice and care for our common home.

Rectify the abuse of power by emulating Jesus’ witness to using power for others and servant leadership.

Revitalize the priesthood of the baptized, the recognition of the gifts of all and the co-responsibility of lay and ordained for mission.

Resuscitate meaningful dialogue in the Church in the spirit of Decretum Gratiani “What touches all must be discussed and approved by all” with “open mind and heart” and with other Christians and others, especially Jews, Muslims and Indigenous traditions.

Restore evangelization and catechesis leading to Jesus, especially for our disconnected young.

Repair right relationships between ordained and lay and women and men in the Church.

Remodel our Churches as welcoming spaces and our liturgy to promote joyful celebration of the Word and the “full and active participation of all” in the Eucharist as a meal of friends, not a performance.


…morality from a sin-centered legalism to the formation of virtue and conscience

…a healthy Christian anthropology reflecting the dignity of all made in the “image of God” and belief that there is “…in Christ and in the Church no inequality on the basis of race, of nationality, social condition or gender…” (L.G.#32)

…a healthy theology of sexuality which preserves Christian values but also incorporates advances in science

Rebuilding requires strenuous labor, different skills and a blueprint with a vision for the new space. Thank God that vision of a happy welcoming home keeps us working.

Sister Nuala Kenny, emerita professor at Dalhousie University, Halifax, N.S., is a pediatrician and physician ethicist.


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