The Boston Globe | Abuse in the Catholic Church


A Catholic icon wrestles with scandal

By Mary Leonard, Globe Staff, 5/5/2002

SOUTH BEND, Ind. - When the spirit moves them, Notre Dame students mobilize. Nearly 7,000 flocked to a memorial Mass on the grassy South Quad on the afternoon of Sept. 11. This spring, hundreds came out to protest the administration's crackdown on alcohol and ban on dormitory dances. They demonstrated right under the Golden Dome, some of them burning copies of Du Lac, the thick student rules book.

But only today, in a Mass of healing at the gothic Basilica of the Sacred Heart, and then in a discussion with the chairman of the Theology Department, will what many regard as the nation's preeminent Roman Catholic university formally invite students to pray over and talk about the crisis that is rocking the church.

''The biggest sin is the silence,'' said Jenni Discher, a divinity major from Monroe, Mich. Last week, Discher and a few other graduate students drafted an appeal for the university to show leadership, to provide more pastoral counseling to students, and to put its considerable clout and resources into a plan to restore trust in the church.

Notre Dame considers itself the place where the church does its thinking. Blessed with a renowned theological school, one of the brightest Catholic student bodies in the country - 85 percent of all underclassmen are Roman Catholic - and many centers for church scholarship, research, and academic debate, it seems a natural spot for speaking out and sorting out what's gone so tragically wrong.

Yet Notre Dame, with priests from the Congregation of the Holy Cross in most administrative positions and 40 teaching posts, has been staggered by the revelations from across the country of clerical sexual abuse and cover-ups by the church hierarchy. And it is still struggling to find its voice.

The university's president, the Rev. Edward A. Malloy, has issued no formal statements on the crisis. Unlike its response to Sept. 11, Notre Dame has had no panel discussions, speakers, or listening sessions on the scandal. Residence hall rectors say they have gotten little or no guidance on how to engage or comfort those students who are quietly grappling with a challenge to their faith and even suspicions about the priests and seminarians on campus.

''There has been an inadequate coordinated response as a university to the most serious crisis in the history of the American Catholic Church,'' said R. Scott Appleby, the director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at Notre Dame.

''It's not because people here are not moved by the tragic, human story or aren't reacting in personal ways,'' Appleby said. ''People here are very close to the crisis - perhap too close - and it goes to the heart of our identity as Catholics.

''Paralysis may be too strong a word, but there is a sense of not quite knowing our way and feeling overwhelmed,'' he added.

On Tuesday, Malloy, a Holy Cross priest known here as ''Monk,'' convened the first meeting of a faculty and executive committee he created a month ago to address the church crisis. The session was held a day before classes ended and three days before Malloy made one of his regular reports to the Board of Trustees. The university's response to the scandal, he said, was on his agenda.

In the committee meeting, some members strongly urged holding a Mass and forum immediately, and argued that the university's responsibility to students and credibility as a prestigious Catholic institution were being undermined by its failure to speak and act.

''I've never been reluctant to speak out when the time is right,'' said Malloy, acknowledging that alumni, too, are seeking some response. ''But it's a lot easier to pontificate than to carefully think things through and come up with steps and a strategy for the ... long range.''

Malloy said he had called on his committee to make ''concrete recommendations'' on how Catholic dioceses can prevent and respond to allegations of sexual misconduct against priests before the bishops' policy-making meeting next month in Dallas. He also intends to host a conference in the fall that would bring together clergy and laity, scholars, researchers, and professionals to examine both practical and spiritual ways to deal with the crisis.

''I've always seen my role as mobilizing the resources of the institution to analyze and make recommendations, and to stand above the fray,'' Malloy said. ''I do find it somewhat ironic that in this situation, people want clerics like me to speak out.''

For the most part, the nation's 230 Catholic colleges and universities, with about 900,000 students, have kept a low profile. The scandal has not tainted them directly, and most of the institutions, like as Notre Dame, are not run by local dioceses. Still, officials say, the crisis hits close to home, and creates tensions on even the most secular campuses.

In the Boston Archdiocese, Cardinal Bernard F. Law will not participate as usual in graduation ceremonies at Boston College, where a number of students and faculty members have said his presence would be unwelcome.

Some Catholic colleges have hosted academic programs with theologians, historians, psychologists, and law professors. Others have organized outreach through campus ministries, or have made faculty experts available to the media. Boston College's president, the Rev. William P. Leahy, instructed campus priests to address the crisis in their homilies, and the alumni association distributed an article Leahy wrote, which begins, ''I love being a priest,'' to alumni, students, and their parents, said John Dunn, a spokesman for the Jesuit college.

At Seattle University, another Jesuit institution, the president, the Rev. Stephen V. Sundborg, wrote a memo last month to the students and staff expressing his ''deep empathy'' with victims and calling cover-ups by church leaders ''alarming'' and ''indefensible.'' Sundborg pledged to examine the university's sexual harassment policies and adopt ''proactive strategies'' to address the crisis.

''I think there is a certain analogy with Sept. 11 and how our campuses responded then,'' said the Rev. Charles Currie, president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities in Washington. ''These are teaching moments, and universities have a special responsibility to help people work through them and understand the complexities of a very serious situation. And they have the resources to deal with them.''

Officials at Notre Dame, which has10,000 undergraduate and graduate students, say that they take that responsibility very seriously, and that they have encouraged professors to discuss the issues in class and priests to preach about it. Malloy, who lives in a residence hall, said he has commented on the crisis in his homilies.

But administrators and professors here think the scandal is both physically and emotionally remote to most students at even this very traditional Catholic university in central Indiana, where Masses are held in dorms several times a week, where the rosary is prayed at a quiet grotto, where the business and law schools have their own chapels, where two theology courses are required, and where the library's ''Touchdown Jesus'' mural towers over the football-crazy campus, so called because the Christ figure's arms are raised in the manner of a referee signaling a score.

''Certainly the crisis has been an object of much conversation, and everyone feels there has to be a clear response to eliminating abusive behavior,'' said the Rev. John Jenkins, a university vice president and an associate provost. ''But for students, it makes a difference if the problem is in the parish next door or in the abstract. We haven't had anything happen concretely, so students aren't that excited about it.''

Jenkins said the university has reviewed its rules on sexual harassment but has found no reason to revise them. The most recent major case was in 1992, when the university asked the Rev. James Burtchaell, a prominent theology professor, to leave because of sexual misconduct, the nature of which was not disclosed.

The students' level of interest will be tested today, when they can take a break from studying for exams and hear and question John Cavadini, chairman of the Theology Department, on aspects of the crisis. Notre Dame's role is to help the church balance accountability and authority, Cavadini said, and it must include students in the dialogue. ''Students are not apathetic; they are worried. They aren't demonstrating like they might over alcohol policies because they equate vocal activism with damage to the church, which they don't want to fall apart,'' Cavadini said. ''It's especially incumbent on us to provide forums so the kids can learn how to talk about it, and we can move them toward healing and renewal.''

Some students say it's about time. ''I hear friends saying, `Why should I go to Mass, why should I care about being a Catholic?' They've lost trust in the discredited church,'' said Brendan Egan, a theology major from South Bend. ''By saying they don't want to talk about it, the university is acting like nothing has happened and is pushing us farther away.''

Egan said students joke about pedophilia and are ''starting to look at priests and wonder.'' Some worry about whether fellow students or members of their families have been abused, he said.

''I hear people say, `We can't act because the crisis is too messy, or we're too close to it,''' said Jenni Discher, who helped draft the appeal for university leadership. Discher has had tearful conversations with Notre Dame staff members about the matter. ''Wasn't that the problem in the first place? Even if the leaders here said, `We don't have the answers but we take this seriously,' wow, what a step that would be.''

Mary Leonard can be reached by e-mail at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 5/5/2002.
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