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Spotlight Report

BC puts abuse issue on agenda

Plans to examine future of church

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 5/16/2002

Boston College, saying its students, priests, and alumni are reeling from the clergy sexual abuse crisis, is launching the first broad academic response to the scandal by a Catholic university.

The school's president, the Rev. William P. Leahy, said yesterday that the 139-year-old Jesuit institution, which has trained many of Boston's political, corporate, and religious elite, this summer will put together a program of undergraduate and graduate courses, public lectures, alumni events, and academic papers examining the future of the Catholic Church in light of its mishandling of clergy sexual abuse.

Leahy said all issues, including the church's hierarchical structure, its teachings on sexual ethics, and the restriction of the priesthood to celibate men, will be open for discussion in a variety of academic programs that will be launched this fall and will last at least two years.

''I don't think the issues that have arisen, touching on how Catholics relate to the church, are going to go away,'' Leahy said. ''The clergy sexual abuse issue has sparked people to look at their faith in a different way. How do they relate to priests and the hierarchy in the church? How could this happen? Why were there cover-ups by the hierarchy? We as the Catholic community have issues we need to respond to and deal with.''

Leahy said BC will present official church teaching, and will invite members of the hierarchy to participate in programs, but that no topic is off-limits for discussion.

''We are undergoing change as a church,'' he said. ''Out of the sexual misconduct issues, we are going to emerge a stronger church, but we have work to do in helping people understand what that church is about. There's a great value in airing the issues.''

Leahy's plan is at odds with the approach of the nation's Catholic bishops, who have chosen to focus more narrowly on the question of what to do about priests who molest children. The pope has declared the topic of the ordination of women off-limits for discussion, for example, and the US cardinals last month declared that the issue of priestly celibacy is not related to the issue of clergy sexual abuse.

In Boston, as in other places across the nation, there has long been tension between church officials and Catholic colleges over the church's influence at those schools, and BC's plan could revive those concerns.

''The cardinal has always been a critic of this stuff, because he's been very worried about the Catholic identity of the colleges and universities, and he thought Jesuit institutions, in particular, had let go of their identity,'' said David J. O'Brien, director of the Center for Religion, Ethics, and Culture at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester. ''But he's not in any position to do anything about it right now. And this is exactly what they should be doing. We should have been doing this for the last 20 years. It's about time.''

Law's spokeswoman, Donna M. Morrissey, herself a Boston College graduate, said ''any time you have open dialogue and-or educational programs addressing the issue of child abuse, that's a step in the right direction.''

Other Catholic colleges have chosen more informal approaches to the crisis.

Holy Cross held a forum, and its president, the Rev. Michael C. McFarland, wrote a letter to alumni officers and trustees declaring that ''the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, especially in Boston, has been appalling.'' A group of students at Holy Cross have sent a letter to Worcester Bishop Daniel P. Reilly, offering their thoughts on the crisis, and a group of faculty is collecting signatures for a letter to Reilly, urging him to support open debate at Catholic universities.

At Regis College in Weston, the campus ministry held a colloquium on the crisis in April, and the college is planning a broader symposium in October. Emmanuel College in Boston and Merrimack College in North Andover, like such national Catholic institutions as Georgetown University and the University of Notre Dame, have not put in place formal programs in response to the crisis. And Catholic University of America, where Law is the chairman of the board of trustees, has largely refused to discuss the issue, often declining even the routine practice of providing faculty specialists to talk with reporters about the church, and yesterday declining to provide a university spokesman to discuss the issue.

Students, faculty, and alumni at Boston College said they don't want their school to ignore the crisis, which for many has been symbolized by the frequent presence of television satellite trucks parked outside the cardinal's residence, just across Commonwealth Avenue from the campus.

''Students are so confused and so hurt and so angry about what's going on, and we're longing for someone to say, `If you have questions, come talk to us','' said Vanessa M. Tramontozzi, a BC senior from New Jersey. ''I feel like I'm defending the church all the time to my friends, my peers, and my co-workers ...''

Boston College Alumni Association executive director Grace Regan said she has received calls and e-mails from graduates urging the college to do something.

''People are looking for resources. They're asking, `How do I handle talking to my children about my faith,' and there are myriad questions and expectations. But most of all, they're looking for BC to take a leadership role,'' Regan said. ''It's not just clergy sexual abuse, it's the church - where do we fit in and how do we move forward and how do we heal? They're looking for BC to provide the venue for a forum.''

The Rev. Joseph A. Appleyard, whose job is to help safeguard BC's Catholic identity as vice president for university mission and ministry, said an open discussion of issues such as sexuality and hierarchy is appropriate.

''In a university, no issues can be off the table,'' Appleyard said. ''That's the lifeblood of the institution, debating things and trying to understand them. And even in the church, issues shouldn't be off the table.''

Appleyard said the crisis in the church must be viewed broadly.

''The depth of anger that has emerged around this issue shows you how much people's feelings are related to these other issues - openness, the whole role of the laity in the church, the role of priests in a hierarchical system, and the whole issue of secrecy,'' he said. ''Deep down, it's about views of the nature of the church, how people relate to one another in the church, and how grace operates in the church.''

Boston College is also planning to use a portion of its commencement as a symbolic response to the crisis. Law is not coming - he and Leahy agreed that the cardinal has become so controversial that his presence would be a distraction. But the college is planning to award honorary degrees to individuals who symbolize the church's ongoing good works, including a diocesan priest, the Rev. Robert J. Bowers of St. Catherine of Siena Church in Charlestown, who is a Boston College alumnus and runs a program for children whose health was damaged by the Chernobyl nuclear accident.

Michael Paulson can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 5/16/2002.
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