Gender, Sex, and Power: Towards a History of Clergy Sex Abuse in the U.S. Catholic Church

The Project

In December 2019, Cushwa Center director Kathleen Sprows Cummings received a grant within the University of Notre Dame’s Church Sexual Abuse Crisis Research Grant Program for the project “Gender, Sex, and Power: Towards a History of Clergy Sex Abuse in the U.S. Catholic Church.” Cummings led the project along with Peter Cajka (Notre Dame), Terence McKiernan (, and Robert Orsi (Northwestern University), who joined the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study as a faculty fellow for 2020–21.

The project leaders issued a call for applications in February 2020. Out of more than 50 applicants, they formed a working group that included 11 scholars from outside Notre Dame. A centerpiece of the project was the working group's partnership with, which facilitated unparalleled access to previously unavailable sources. By fostering cross-disciplinary collaboration and supporting participants’ individual studies, the project worked to advance new research on the crisis and its causes as well as to illuminate new understandings of modern Catholicism.

The group first met virtually in June 2020. The project culminated with an in-person research symposium hosted at the University of Notre Dame March 27–29, 2022.


Jennifer Beste is professor of theology and the Koch Chair in Catholic Thought and Culture at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University. In 2018, Oxford University Press published her book College Hookup Culture and Christian Ethics: The Lives and Longings of Emerging Adults. Beste plans to examine documents pertaining to the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis to identify a hierarchy of “who mattered” amid disclosures of abuse.

Jack Downey is the John Henry Newman Professor in Roman Catholic Studies at the University of Rochester. His book A Burnt Offering: Self-Immolation, Martyrdom, and Horror is in progress. Downey’s research focuses on Jesuits in Alaska.

Kara French is an associate professor of U.S. women’s history at Salisbury University. Her book Against Sex: Identities of Sexual Restraint in Early America is forthcoming from UNC Press. French is studying the connections between clerical celibacy and the abuse crisis.

R. Marie Griffith is the John C. Danforth Distinguished Professor in the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis, where she directs the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics. Her most recent book, Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians and Fractured American Politics, was published by Basic Books in 2017. Griffith’s project concerns how Catholic doctrine on gender and women’s roles affected female victims’ experiences of abuse in Southern California.

Ramón Gutiérrez is the Preston and Sterling Morton Distinguished Service Professor of U.S. History and the College at the University of Chicago. He is the author of New Mexico’s Moses: Reies López Tijerina—Pentecostal Evangelist and Defender of the Poor, which is forthcoming from the University of New Mexico Press. Gutiérrez is looking at papers on Father Arthur Perrault and the wider sexual abuse crisis in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe.

Kathleen Holscher is associate professor of American studies and also holds the Endowed Chair of Roman Catholic Studies in the Religious Studies Program at the University of New Mexico. Her book Religious Lessons: Catholic Sisters, Public Education and the Law in Mid-Century New Mexico was published by Oxford University Press in 2012. Holscher is studying how priests in and under the care of the Servants of the Paraclete imagined sin and pursued redemption in the U.S. Southwest.

Christiaan Jacobs-Vandegeer is a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Theology and Philosophy at Australian Catholic University. His co-authored book with Neil Ormerod, Foundational Theology: A New Approach to Catholic Fundamental Theology, was published by Fortress Press in 2015. Jacobs-Vandegeers research examines how doctrinal language factors into relations of abuse.

Colleen McDannell is professor of history and the Sterling M. McMurrin Chair in Religious Studies at the University of Utah. Her most recent book, Sister Saints: Mormon Women Since the End of Polygamy, was published by Oxford University Press in 2018. McDannell’s research examines how Catholic family and social life shaped responses to abuse cases.

James O’Toole holds the Charles I. Clough Millennium Chair in History at Boston College. His most recent book, The Faithful: A History of Catholics in America, was published by Harvard University Press in 2008. O’Toole intends to focus on the culture of clericalism and its role in the sexual abuse crisis. He is focusing on Saint John’s Seminary in the Archdiocese of Boston.

Doris Reisinger is a research assistant in the Department of Catholic Theology at Goethe University in Frankfurt and is teaching at the Sankt Georgen Graduate School of Philosophy and Theology. As a philosopher, she is the author of Was ist ein Original? Eine Begriffsbestimmung jenseits genieästhetischer Stereotype (Transcript, Berlin 2020). As a theologian, she is focusing on spiritual abuse and is the author of Spiritueller Missbrauch in der katholischen Kirche (Herder, Freiburg 2019). Reisinger is investigating forced abortions as part of the clergy sexual abuse crisis in the United States.

John Seitz is an associate professor in the Department of Theology at Fordham University. He also serves as associate director of Fordhams Curran Center for American Catholic Studies. With Christine Firer Hinze, he co-edited Working Alternatives: American and Catholic Experiments in Work and Economy, forthcoming from Fordham University Press. Seitz is looking into the careers of abuser priests Donald J. McGuire, S.J., and John J. Powell, S.J.

Project Leaders

Peter Cajka (program director) is an assistant teaching professor in the Department of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame. His book, Follow Your Conscience: The Catholic Church and the Spirit of the Sixties, is forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press. He is looking into the career of Father Louis Miller, an abuser priest from the Archdiocese of Louisville.

Kathleen Sprows Cummings is the Reverend John A. O’Brien Collegiate Professor of American Studies and History at the University of Notre Dame. She is the author of A Saint of Our Own: How the Quest for a Holy Hero Helped Catholics Become American (University of North Carolina Press, 2019). Cummings is focusing on Catholic sisters’ work in dioceses, examining how intersecting hierarchies of power shaped their relationship to victims, perpetrators, and bishops at the center of the crisis.

Terence McKiernan founded in 2003 and is the organization’s president. McKiernan holds master’s degrees in classics from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the University of Bristol in England. Before his involvement in the Church crisis, he was an academic editor and a consulting firm manager. McKiernan is working on the role of the sacrament of penance in the clergy abuse problem.

Robert Orsi is the Grace Craddock Nagle Chair in Catholic Studies in the Religion Department at Northwestern University. His most recent book is History and Presence (Harvard University Press, 2016). During the 2020–21 academic year, Orsi is a faculty fellow with the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study. He is working on Give Us Boys, a book project about the formation of young men at a Jesuit high school in New York City from 1967 to 1971 as an episode in the broader history of modern Catholic sexuality, class, and urbanism.

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