Spotlight on U.S. Catholic History: Reinterpreting the Past after Clerical Sex Abuse

Image of Boston Globe Jan 6, 2002 frontpage

Kathleen Sprows Cummings
University of Notre Dame

Date: March 21, 2024
Time: 12 - 1pm
Location: 24 Quincy Road, Conference Room

RSVP Required


This presentation explores the history of clerical sexual abuse in the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston using documents generated by and related to the Boston Globe’s Spotlight investigation (2002). Foregrounding Catherine Mulkerrin, a Sister of St. Joseph who handled allegations reported to the Archdiocese of Boston between 1992 and 1994, it shows how even a glancing engagement with sources on clerical sex abuse invites historians to revisit familiar texts and rethink their interpretations of the American Catholic past.

Headshot of Cummings

Kathleen Sprows Cummings is Professor of American Studies and History at the University of Notre Dame. From 2012 until 2023, she served as the William and Anna Jean Cushwa Director of Notre Dame’s Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism and the coordinator for the Conference on the History of Women Religious. Cummings is an affiliated faculty member in Gender Studies, Italian Studies, and the Nanovic Institute for European Studies. Cummings’ most recent book, A Saint of Our
Own: How the Quest for a Holy Hero Helped Catholics Become American
, was published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2019.

Cummings’ first book, New Women of the Old Faith: Gender and American Catholicism in the Progressive Era, also was published by North Carolina 2009. She co-edited with R. Scott Appleby, Catholics and the American Century: Recasting Narratives of U.S. History (Cornell University Press, 2012). She also co-edited, with Timothy Matovina and Robert Orsi, Catholics in the Vatican II Era: Local Histories of a Global Event, published in 2017 with Cambridge University Press. She is also the editor of Roman Sources for the Study of American Catholicism, 1763-1939, a guide to 59 archival repositories in Rome and at the Holy See (Notre Dame, 2018). From 2020 to 2022, Cummings directed the Cushwa Center’s project, “Gender, Sex, & Power: Toward a History of Clergy Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church.” Cummings served as the president of the American Catholic Historical Association in 2017.

Cummings teaches classes on the history of women, Catholicism, sanctity, and American religion at the University of Notre Dame. In 2021 she received Notre Dame’s Sheedy Excellence in Teaching award, presented annually to an outstanding teacher in the College of Arts and Letters who motivates and enriches students using innovative and creative teaching methods that influence learning within the department, College, and University. A regular contributor to NBC/MSNBC, Cummings has joined the network for live coverage of the papal conclave in March 2013, the canonization of Popes John Paul II and John XXIII in April 2014, and the papal visit to the United States in September 2015. She is frequently quoted in the New York Times and other media outlets on a variety of Catholic subjects. In fall 2022, Cummings served as the Teilhard de Chardin Fellow at the Hank Center for the Catholic Intellectual Tradition at Loyola University Chicago. Cummings will spend academic year 2022-2023 as a teaching fellow at the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study, where she will develop (in collaboration with Paul Kollman, CSC of Notre Dame’s Department of Theology) a course on Global Catholicism.

January 2022 marked 20 years since The Boston Globe’s watershed Spotlight report, which publicly revealed the clerical abuse and cover-ups happening throughout the Archdiocese of Boston and set off a wave of investigation into clerical sexual abuse throughout the country and the world. The National Catholic Reporter published an opinion piece reflecting on the climate in Boston when the news first broke and detailing its impact on the local community. As the Church continues to reckon with its troubled past, Barbara Thorp – the author of the NCR piece and a former social-worker in the Archdiocese of Boston – advocates for a national database of accused clergy as a means of support for survivors and greater transparency for the larger church community.  

Henley, Jon. “How the Boston Globe Exposed the Abuse Scandal that Rocked the Catholic Church.The Guardian. April 21, 2010.

Kauffman, James. “When Sorry Is Not Enough: Archbishop Cardinal Bernard Law's Image Restoration Strategies in the Statement on Sexual Abuse of Minors by Clergy.Public Relations Review 34, no. 3 (2008): 258–62.

McCarthy, Tom, director. Spotlight. Participant Media, First Look Media, Anonymous Content, and Rocklin/Faust. 2015. 

Rezendes, Michael and the Globe Spotlight Team. “Church Allowed Abuse by Priest for Years.” Boston Globe. January 6, 2002.  

Senander, Angela. “Beyond Scandal: Creating a Culture of Accountability in the Catholic Church.” Journal of Business Ethics 146, no. 4 (2017): 859–67.  

Slawson, Douglas J. “Outrage in Boston: The Sexual Abuse Scandal and the Downfall of Cardinal Bernard Law.American Catholic Studies 128, no. 4 (2017): 55–82.

Wind, Leslie H., James M. Sullivan, and Daniel J. Levins. “Survivors' Perspectives on the Impact of Clergy Sexual Abuse on Families of Origin.” Journal of Child Sexual Abuse 17, no. 3-4 (2008): 238–54.  

Kathleen Cummings delivering her lecture

Dr. Kathleen Cummings delivering her luncheon colloquium at the Boisi Center.

Kathleen Cummings delivering her lecture.

On Thursday, March 21st, 2024 the Boisi Center hosted Kathleen Sprows Cummings for a luncheon entitled, “Spotlight on U.S. Catholic History: Reinterpreting the Past after Clerical Sex Abuse.” Cummings is a professor of American studies and history at the University of Notre Dame and the former associate director of Notre Dame’s Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism. To frame the luncheon, Cummings began with a quote from Catherine R. Osborne: “when the spotlight was turned on sexual abuse, what else did the light from its edges illuminate?” In service of this illumination, Cummings focused her presentation on the experience of women religious, offering greater insight into the spoken and unspoken dimensions of the clerical sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. 

Cummings explained how the scandal intersected with the lives and experiences of U.S. Catholic sisters in the late twentieth century. In particular, she centered the life and experience of Sister Catherine Mulkerrin, an activist nun who played a key role in uncovering clerical sex abuse. She was a Sister of Saint Joseph in Boston and was invited by Cardinal Bernard Law to serve in a leadership role at the archdiocesan level after dozens of victims of James Porter came to light. Mulkerrin challenged sexist traditions in the Church, encouraged the Church to move beyond shame, and emphasized the importance of listening to the voices of the victims. Mulkerrin herself supported and accompanied many victims of sexual abuse through their trials. During the luncheon, Cummings examined oral history accounts of Mulkerrin’s work to highlight her critical role in supporting victims, including female victims. Cummings noted that most studies focus primarily on male victims while giving limited attention to the abuse of girls and women. Cummings connected this to the issue of “Holy Subservience,” and she noted how the clerical sex abuse crisis was produced by a series of overlapping hierarchies: “adults over children,…hierarchy over clergy, clergy over laity, and of course, in the Catholic tradition, men over women.” Amidst these challenging power dynamics, Cummings uplifted the brave leadership of Mulkerrin, who created spaces that allowed victim stories to be heard and encouraged transparency regarding the crisis. A number of the women Mulkerrin supported emphasized how important it was for them to be able to speak to a woman rather than a male authority figure in the Church. Despite Mulkerrin’s tireless advocacy, she left her role believing she had personally failed to make a strong enough impact. Cummings explained how Mulkerrin’s view of herself reflects a systemic failure and reflects the Church’s retrograde, as the promise of autonomy for women in the Church has been obscured. 

The luncheon concluded with a question and answer session that further examined the role of misogyny in the crisis, the unfathomable reality that the priests referenced in abuse documents continued to be assigned to work with children, and the names of other women religious who followed Mulkerrin’s path in their support of victims.