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The hearing

What the Church needs

Fr. Leahy and alumniThe pangs, strains, and dislocations of the American Catholic community were on vivid display on the afternoon of Saturday, June 1, when about 70 reunioning alumni took up an invitation from University President William P. Leahy, SJ, to express their opinions on BC's "The Church in the 21st Century" initiative. [See BCM, "Natural resource," Spring 2002.] Announced by the president two weeks earlier in a blitz of interviews with the Boston Herald, Boston Globe and New York Times, the undertaking promises a "special academic focus" over the next two years to examine issues relating to the clerical sexual misconduct scandal. The program would include, Fr. Leahy said, public lectures, campus seminars, Web and print publications, and special presentations for alumni across the country.

The alumni who forsook a clear and sunny spring afternoon to gather in the tiered seats of a Devlin Hall classroom were middle-aged and older, for the most part, and dressed like Cape Cod vacationers, though a few older men were celebrating reunion Saturday in sportscoats or suits, dress shirts, and ties. All appeared to listen attentively as Fr. Leahy welcomed them and outlined what he saw as the Church's immediate tasks (respond compassionately to victims, and change internal structures so that abuse and cover-ups cannot happen again) and the related long-term issues BC hopes to engage: sexuality in the Catholic tradition and in American culture; the interlocking partnership of lay people, clergy, and hierarchy in the Church; and what the president called "how we live our faith today and pass it on to the next generation."

Labeling his audience an "ideal" group from which to gather critiques of BC's plans, Leahy opened the floor to "comments and questions." These came quickly and steadily and for more than an hour, sometimes directed at BC's president, sometimes at other speakers, and sometimes at individuals who were far away from Boston College; the tone of the discussion ranging from therapy group, to zoning board hearing, to boardroom presentation, to revival meeting. Fr. Leahy took notes on a legal pad throughout and directed the discussion with the restrained hand of a veteran teacher (he happens to be one), recognizing individuals who had not yet had a chance to speak, reflecting comments back at the audience so they took off in fresh trajectories, nodding his encouragement, and now and again asking a direct question.

"How many people here personally know victims of [clerical] sexual abuse?" a man in the audience began. About 20 hands rose. "We know three," a woman in a magenta sweater called out to Leahy. "How has that affected you?" he asked. "It's galvanized my faith," she replied. His question was softly phrased; her response was flinty, daring challenge, and not from Leahy. Leahy pointed to another raised hand. "What we're looking at is a conspiracy of silence on the part of [Church] leadership in order to avoid the questions of women and married priests," a man said.

Leahy and an alumnus. Photo by Justin Knight

This brought a man in the second row to his feet. He wore a gray suit and identified himself as an ordained deacon and a member of the Class of 1942. Expressing his credo as "my bishop, right or wrong," he said that a chief problem in Boston was that lay people had not defended Cardinal Bernard Law sufficiently. "Powerful forces—the media and lawyers—have been taking this thing out of context," he said. Around the room, people had begun to shake their heads and smile. "I can't imagine the cardinal not caring for children," the man in the suit declared before sitting down to applause from a few people sitting near him, who appeared to be classmates and their wives. "[Cardinal Law] is involved in a conspiracy to obstruct justice," one man responded immediately. A woman said, "The root cause is abuse of power." A man in a madras-patterned shirt and with a laborer's broad shoulders said to Fr. Leahy, "This is not about faith but about trust. The faith may remain strong but trust has been broken at its roots."

When a man asked "What's expected of the laity now?" Leahy shook his head and put up his hands defensively, drawing laughter. "I'm not the pope or a cardinal," he said. "I'm a member of the Church, just like you. But I'd say that one thing we need is better-educated lay people." Leahy went on to note that while an estimated 70 to 75 percent of BC's undergraduate students were "confirmed in the Church, many come in unprepared for college-level theology." The University, Leahy said, has to lower its expectations for what it can teach young Catholics about their faith. He said he also believed that archdioceses would benefit from "a greater sharing of power" with laity. "BC has been enhanced by the presence of lay men and women" on the faculty and staff and on the Board of Trustees, he said, "and while we'll always have a hierarchical church, it needs the active participation and talents of our lay people."

Not all in the room were absolutely focused on questions of education or governance. When Leahy asked how trust in the hierarchy could be restored, a gray-haired woman responded "adoration and prayer," but so quietly that she had to be asked to repeat herself. Governance was what was on most minds, however. "Transparency" was a condition of restored trust, said a man in a dark green polo shirt—"a full hearing on all the facts, no matter how painful." Another man said plaintively, "We need a forum to talk." Another spoke of "parallels in crisis management" in government and business and the regular use of "blue-ribbon commissions" to probe wrongdoing in those arenas. A woman in a white blouse told how her archdiocese in Texas had years earlier created administrative structures for reporting child abuse, and said this had given her a sense of personal "responsibility as a member of the diocese." Leahy, who was familiar with the Texas program, said that it was a model that deserved duplication. Another man, who said he was a deacon, spoke of the Church's need to develop "appropriate advisory bodies" and "youth protection models" like those used by youth organizations such as the Boy Scouts.

First meeting of the advisory committee. To Leahy's right, codirectors Robert Newton of the president's office and Mary Ann Hinsdale of the Institute of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry. Photo by Gary Wayne Gilbert

The U.S. Church's special circumstances in a pluralist and democratic homeland seemed to be another important issue for the alumni. When Fr. Leahy asked how many in the room belonged to parishes that had "functioning parish councils," many hands went up. "The question is how functioning," a woman added, to general laughter. Another woman spoke of having become embarrassed to identify herself as a Catholic during workplace discussions of religious issues with people of other faiths. An alumna in a white T-shirt and shorts—perhaps the youngest person in the room—asked whether "The Church in the 21st Century" would include "debates about women priests or married priests. As a woman in America, I can run a company. But as a Catholic, I go into a church and there are many things I can't do." Leahy said all questions that surfaced during the initiative would be openly discussed. "A lot of these issues are serious and important," a man in a blue button-down shirt responded, "but they don't get down to the root cause of how this happened. There's been a lack of candor." Another man: "The Church is not a democracy, but it has to be more democratic." "Without moving from the universality of the Church, we need to allow for American culture," said another. A man then asked how the views of the bishops and authorities in Rome "will affect the [BC] program." Leahy let the knowing laughter subside. "There is a fear of Americanism in Rome," he said. "But a university ought to be a meeting place where the issues are discussed—maybe not resolved, but discussed."

The list of concerns swelled. A man grieved that the scandal had "paralyzed" the American Church, "deflecting us from other issues." A blonde woman who identified herself as a catechist said that of 24 ninth-grade [Catholic] students she'd surveyed, none went to Mass regularly. "None," she repeated. Another woman asked "How do we handle the debilitation of the pope?" Others in the room raised the "loneliness" of priests, alcoholism among priests, and "having accurate information" regarding the scandal and the Church's response. "Can BC address that?" a man asked. Fr. Leahy nodded and wrote on his legal pad.

"What happens to priests who did something 20 years ago?" said the 1942 graduate in the dark suit. "Can they serve the Lord no more?"

"Would you have him as your priest?" someone called out.

"I would."

"What if your grandchild was in the parish?" someone else asked.

An earnest-looking, dark-haired younger man who said he was "concerned about the credibility of the Church in America" asked whether BC's presentations would include views from "law enforcement." No, Leahy said. Another man called out "Who does the pope talk to?" Leahy laughed and again put up his hands as though to stop a charge. "To my knowledge," said the native Iowan, "no one from Iowa gets phoned by the pope."

And finally, a man raised his hand and said, "These are the things that need to be done," and then without breaking a sweat ran through a consultant's crisis management to-do list: "full disclosure," "own the responsibility," "re-establish trust," and "change processes to share power."

Leahy called the session to a close a few minutes later (and 15 minutes past the allotted hour). Noting that "the interest of Catholics in their Church has been deepened by what has gone on these last five months," he said that he was grateful for what he had learned and that, while it was time to call the session to an end, he would stay afterwards to take any further comments. Even as he spoke, people began gathering around him. A thin dark-haired woman sitting near me, who had said nothing during the session, whispered "Bravo."

The alumni reunion gathering was not the only source of counsel for planners of the BC intiative. Fr. Leahy, the Alumni Association, and other offices received more than 400 e-mails and letters in the weeks after the announcement. Most came from alumni and all but a handful praised the University for, as one writer to Fr. Leahy said, "put[ting] forth a proposal that will be an avenue for people like my wife and I to address and help to reconcile the direction of our beloved Church." More responses came as a result of a direct solicitation from Fr. Leahy to deans and faculty.

A 33-member advisory committee of faculty, staff, alumni, and students was appointed in late June. Its codirectors are Robert Newton, special assistant to the president, and Mary Ann Hinsdale, director of BC's Institute for Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry.The committee has been meeting through the summer to set programs for "The Church in the 21st Century"

Ben Birnbaum


The first event in "The Church in the 21st Century" initiative will take place on September 18th at 7:30 p.m. at Boston College. Featured speakers will be University President William P. Leahy, SJ, and Newsweek religion editor Kenneth Woodward, with a panel of respondents drawn from alumni and faculty.

The event is free but requires a ticket. For further information, go to www.bc.edu/church21 or e-mail church21@bc.edu or call (617) 552-0470. The event will be Web cast live and transmitted live by satellite in conjunction with the National Boston College Club Network. For further information, go to www.bc.edu/alumni or call (617) 552-4700.

Top Photo: Fr. Leahy and alumni: "I'm a member of the Church, just like you.".

Photo by Justin Knight

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