Podcasting on Pain and Progress
By Lauren Loftus
Reeling from the ongoing church sexual abuse crisis, Maggi Van Dorn ’08 teamed up with America Media to harness her skills as a podcast producer and devout Catholic to find a way forward.
Maggi Van Dorn ’08 kept asking herself, “How can I remain Catholic?”
Like many raised in the church, she was outraged by the sexual abuse crisis that rocked the Catholic community in the U.S. and across the globe. Van Dorn was in high school when the Boston Globe’ s 2002 Spotlight investigation into child abuse at the hands of clergy—and decades of cover-up by church officials—brought the issue into national cultural awareness. Years later, while working as a podcast producer in New York, she was heartbroken again by reports of ongoing abuse that came to light in 2018 when the former archbishop of Washington, D.C. was removed from ministry for substantiated claims of abuse. Then, two months later, a Pennsylvania grand jury report exposed more than 1,000 cases of abuse within the state.
“I was 16 years old when the first wave of the crisis broke in 2002 and therefore wasn’t really able to process the sexual abuse crisis very fully,” Van Dorn says. “Even, I think, as a young adult at Santa Clara, that conversation was not happening very much in the classroom. Either that or I was just not tuned into it.”
But, she says, the University’s emphasis on ethics and social justice was helping her lay the groundwork for grappling with major challenges later on. Van Dorn earned her bachelor's degree in religious studies at SCU in 2008 and continued immersing herself in the subject matter. She earned her master’s at Harvard Divinity School and then began teaching theology to high schoolers while remaining very involved in Catholic ministry.
With this added experience and perspective, Van Dorn says the revelations in 2018 resonated more as an adult. “I felt at this point in life like I had a different kind of responsibility and accountability to the church that helped raise me, and which has constituted so much of my own professional life,” she says.
It was an overwhelming feeling, but like any good journalist, Van Dorn knew she had to start by educating herself on the topic, reading every article and major report she could find on the subject. “The more I dove into the raw material, the more I realized that I didn’t want this to be an isolated, individual journey, but that I wanted to utilize my skills and background in ministry and theology and broadcast to find a way forward.”
So she made a podcast about it. Teaming with America Media, the publishers of the Jesuit-run America magazine, Van Dorn produced a 12-episode series called “Deliver Us” that premiered last year. “Deliver Us” covers the history of the church abuse crisis, including victim testimonies, and asks big questions like whether reforms are working, what role—if any—priestly celibacy played in the crisis, and what can be done to hold bishops accountable? The first episode starts with the question Van Dorn had been asking herself all along: “How can I remain Catholic?”
“It’s not like I had immediate answers. My hope was that by openly exploring these questions in a podcast that we’d invite the audience into thinking about what the solutions might be,” she says. “Podcasting can be a communal search for answers.”
In the end, Van Dorn remains a committed Catholic. “It’s because of my faith that I care about human dignity and uplifting the stories of survivors and pursuing justice in our country and the church,” she says.
And though she’s disappointed by gaps in holding some members of church leadership accountable, she remains encouraged by the widespread grassroots response by lay people. “My conviction is that we are the church, and while we are not culpable, we are responsible for its healing.”
It’s a sentiment that not every Catholic shares. “But I think about that responsibility like caring for one of your own family or kin,” she says. “Anyone who calls themselves Catholic should be concerned about the suffering our institution created.” And it’s how she framed the panel discussion she led on November 12 at Santa Clara in conjunction with the Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education.
It was Van Dorn’s first time back on campus in more than nine years, and she worked closely with Aaron Willis, director of the Ignatian Center’s Bannan Forum, to address the needs of the audience of San Jose community members and SCU students through her talk with panelists Paul Crowley, S.J., Sally Vance-Trembath of the Department of Religious Studies, and Catherine Wolff of the San Jose Diocesan Review Board. “Where we landed was how to process this crisis as a Catholic and how to discern our response going forward.”
As she told the audience, Van Dorn has identified four ways Catholics can respond: distance themselves from the church, minimize or compartmentalize the issues, walk away completely, or, as she’s done, recommit to the faith tradition while finding a path toward reconciliation.
“I don’t think there is a silver bullet cure—if I did, I would’ve made the whole podcast about how to achieve that,” she says. “It’s a very complex issue and some of the greatest service we can do with complex issues is unpack them.”
Progress can feel excruciatingly slow, Van Dorn acknowledges. And it can be especially fatiguing if your media diet consists of sound bites and headlines. But she’s hopeful that headway is being made, naming reforms laid out in the Dallas Charter for the protection of children in U.S. dioceses and the 2019 motu propio from Pope Francis obligating church officials to immediately report abuse.
There’s a prayer that Van Dorn first encountered at Santa Clara, attributed to the late Bishop Ken Untener of Michigan, called Prophets of a Future Not Our Own. She likes to reference it when talking about the slow-going of progress: It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view , the prayer begins. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work.
“We can’t do everything. And there’s a sense of liberation in realizing we can only do some things,” she says. “I feel like we are being called now to figure out what those things are that we can do and do well.”
Feb 26, 2020
Maggi Van Dorn ’08 in the "Deliver Us" podcasting studio. Photo courtesy Van Dorn.