The Boston Globe | Abuse in the Catholic Church


Catholic schools keep faith of their supporters

By Laura Pappano, Globe Correspondent, 3/26/2002

The priest scandal may be knocking at the moral foundation of the Boston Archdiocese, but for some Catholic schools, the painful revelations and allegations of sexual abuse have yielded something more positive: a teachable moment.

Michael Campos, theology teacher at Archbishop Williams High School in Braintree, has had class discussions on whether women should be ordained and whether the vow of celibacy should be reconsidered. The class has talked about ethics, decision-making, and the way institutions respond to conflict. ''For me as a teacher, I welcome that kind of interaction,'' said Campos. ''These questions have come up and it's allowed the students to participate more deeply.''

Some schools are keeping mum about the matter and several principals declined comment, leaving discussions to parish leaders.

But others are increasing communication. Mary Ellen Barnes, principal of Archbishop Williams, is one of many principals who said teachers have been addressing student questions during class.

The scandal - the seeming flood of accusations, debates about whether Cardinal Bernard F. Law should step down, and the cloud on the priesthood - continues to be the buzz among students, faculty, and parents. But even as people profess distress at the state of the church, there is little evidence those concerns have filtered down to Catholic schools. Instead, the schools appear to have become a sanctuary for shaken Catholics eager to express support.

Even at Boston College High School, where Jesuit priest Stephen F. Dawber was removed March 5 after allegations of sexual misconduct in the 1970s, parents and students have rallied around school principal and acting president William T. Kemeza, praising his response as forthright.

''I don't think the church is sending a good message, but BC High is,'' said Susan Buccini of Weymouth, whose son is a senior.

However, the standing of Catholic schools seems to be greater than worries about broader church problems.

''I don't see the reputation of the schools being tarnished by what's happened,'' said Janine Bempechat, senior consultant at Tufts University's Program for Educational Change Agents, who has been studying Catholic schools in Boston since 1990.

''Among people who don't really know the Catholic schools and how they work, I'm sure are people who are concerned. But the reputation of the Catholic schools stands on its own.''

Despite a few school closings announced last week - planned before the scandal - many Catholic schools report increasing enrollments. At Archbishop Williams, for example, Barnes said the incoming freshman class is 18 percent larger than last year. Brother James MacDonald, president of Catholic Memorial, a grade 7-12 boys school in West Roxbury, has waiting lists for all grades, and said parents are expressing ''tremendous support for the school - and Catholic schools across the board.''

At Xaverian Brothers High in Westwood, an all-boys school, Brother Daniel Skala received 1,000 applications for 260 seats - nearly all made in the midst of the unfolding crisis. The headmaster said parents call daily to see whether spots have opened up on the waiting list. Skala also said a $12 million capital campaign ending this summer has not been affected by the scandal, with no canceled commitments and $11.3 million raised. ''We're embarrassed by what's happened in the wider church,'' said Skala. ''But there is so much good here, it's palpable, it's visible. That's what is helping us get through.''

Sister Kathleen Carr, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Boston, hopes parents distinguish between Catholic schools and the trouble in the church. Only 8 percent of the teachers in the 177 schools in the archdiocese are clergy members, she said.

''I'm hoping [parents] are basing their decisions on their day-to-day experience of the school community,'' she said, ''which is very different from what they are reading in the papers.''

Carr has not met with school principals as a group. Although she said school officials will participate in any training by the archdiocese in response to the crisis, she said her office also is exploring school materials that could be added to existing curriculum on personal safety.

The perceived separation between church and school - in the past a matter of internal debate as schools have become more secular places increasingly populated by non-Catholics - now seems a point of relief. Although theology teachers like Campos hope the crisis will spur student interest in the life of the church, he said some express a lack of interest in the scandal because they don't feel it affects them. ''Most of these students actually live their life independently of the institution,'' he said. ''Not as many attend church, or their exposure to church is limited to the Catholic school setting.''

ABC High, senior Matt Walsh, a member of the honor council and editor in chief of The Eagle, the student newspaper, said the misconduct accusations seem unconnected to the present because the abuse is alleged to have taken place so long ago.

''For most people, it is so far removed in the past,'' Walsh said.

Although rising enrollments suggest parents feel comfortable with local Catholic schools, some say the crisis has increased awareness of child safety.

''It does come to mind, of course: `Is it really safe to send my kids there?''' said Mandeep Kaur of Somerville, a Sikh originally from India whose two daughters attend St. Catherine of Genoa School in Somerville. ''But I haven't made any changes. I do believe in the principal who is there, that she does make sure every child there is safe.''

Milton parent Julie Marotta, who transferred her three children from public school to St. Mary of the Hills in Milton last fall, said the scandal increases concern - but not just about their Catholic school. ''I'm afraid for my kids no matter where they go,'' she said. ''You can find a child predator, and it could be a neighbor. You just can't look at the Catholic Church or CCD classes or parochial schools as dangerous environments because of a few bad people.''

The issue also has principals cautioning teachers about student contact. ''We have to be very careful because of the climate,'' said Sharon Sinnott, principal at St. Mary of the Hills. ''There's a heightened awareness for adults working with young people,'' said Barnes, adding that ''even just patting someone on the back'' could be misinterpreted.

At Xaverian Brothers, Skala said the scandal has spurred conversations about what constitutes abusive behavior and, more broadly, about sexuality. ''All teenagers deal with these questions 24 hours a day,'' he said.

Skala said the crisis also is a chance to help students understand that human institutions - and the humans who run them - are imperfect. ''It's an opportunity to help kids reflect on their own lives,'' Skala said. ''We are all very anxious this year for that sense of new life.''

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 3/26/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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