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Spotlight Report

  Eileen McNamara  

A nun's call for inclusion


n 22 years as a Sister of St. Joseph, Betsy Conway has never contemplated leaving her order. She has considered leaving her church, however.

There is no mystery, she says. The empowerment one feels in a collaborative community of religious women can't help but estrange you from the closed hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. If she did not so love the church, she says, her exasperation with its rigidity might have driven her away long before the scandal now threatening the stewardship of Cardinal Bernard F. Law.

For weeks now, we have heard from the lawyers, the laity, the accused, and the victimized, but the voices of religious women have been largely absent from the public conversation about the epidemic of child sexual abuse by priests in the Archdiocese of Boston.

Sister Betsy's is one voice Law would be well served to heed. At New Beginnings, the Framingham program where she works with AIDS patients, she took time out yesterday to watch news of a settlement of a civil lawsuit against John Geoghan, the defrocked priest accused of molesting as many as 130 children during 40 years in the priesthood.

She was especially struck by the number of times four of those victims expressed relief that their own voices finally had been heard. "What does it say that they thanked their lawyer for hearing them when the church would not," she sighed. "Many of us are angry, but it's a hopeful anger like the anger of the laity. It is the anger of committed, passionate people who want justice."

At a meeting last weekend, 150 sisters from her order talked about how they could contribute to efforts to reform their church.

"Some of us are angry, some have empathy for the cardinal, but all of us wonder if it isn't time for Vatican III."

Forty years ago, Pope John XXIII convened Vatican II to bring the Catholic Church more in line with the modern world. "We need that kind of reflection again," says Sister Betsy. "Many are asking whether there should be an American church."

At the heart of the sisters' discussions is the need to confront what Sister Betsy calls "the imbalance of power that has existed forever in the church." The question is deeper, more fundamental than the issue of the ordination of women, she says. "It is systemic. Everyone is supposed to be welcome at the table. It all comes down to respect, inclusion, and love. When we stray from that, people get hurt."

Women religious offer a model of community and shared decision-making that could provide the hierarchy with an alternative way of operating, suggests Sister Betsy, who shares a two-family house in Watertown with six other Sisters of St. Joseph. In their work with urban poor, the educationally disadvantaged, the sick, and the rejected, the nuns are closer to the ideal of service and humility than the man on Lake Street, yet not a single nun serves on his special commission to advise the cardinal on the unfolding child abuse scandal.

"We stand with those who feel voiceless," says Sister Betsy, whose clients at New Beginnings are not all believers. "But they tell me that my love and concern for them makes it easier for them to believe. That is our mission. We are healers. We are doing the work of mending even as the church does damage control.

"I am as hopeful as I have ever been for the church. Something powerful is happening. This is a new moment. It's tragic what has brought us here, but we are here and no one wants to go back. There is a lot of hope, a feeling that we are on the brink of something and we are just holding our breath," says Sister Betsy.

"This is our church, all of us, and we need to take it back."

Eileen McNamara can be reached at

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 3/13/2002.
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