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Catholic college takes on the church's crisis

At Boston College, a two-year initiative seeks to engage Catholics in sorting through the sex-abuse scandal

By Jane LampmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 26, 2002

Amid a clergy sexual-abuse scandal that has dragged on for nine months, Catholics in Boston are again taking the lead to seek healing for the American church.

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Parishioners here last March created a significant lay movement, Voice of the Faithful, which has attracted 25,000 members across the US. And now Boston College – the region's premier Catholic educational institution – has launched a bold two-year initiative to engage the entire Catholic community in grappling with the complex issues that will shape the church's future.

Catholic colleges and universities across the country have responded in various ways to the scandal, but none has taken as seriously the responsibility to help the broader community sort through the challenges. By drawing on religious and intellectual resources in an open setting, the program aims to transform a sense of betrayal into hope and an opportunity for renewal.

"The current situation calls for healing, and healing requires not only work of the heart but also work of the mind," says the Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J., Boston College (BC) president.

The ambitious program of regular lectures, panels, and workshops – called "Church in the 21st Century" – will explore three main issues: the roles and relationships of lay men and women, priests, and bishops; issues of sexuality among Catholics in American culture; and challenges of living and handing the faith on to the next generation.

At last week's opening event, Father Leahy acknowledged the initiative may generate controversy and disagreement. "Faithful Catholics hold different opinions about many important matters," he told the crowd of about 4,000. "When that happens, we need to remind ourselves that ... a university is committed to open discussion and the objective consideration of the wide variety of opinions...."

The fairly liberal school has locked horns in the past with conservative Cardinal Bernard Law, whose archdiocesan headquarters are located across the road from the campus. And after the scandal mushroomed last spring, the cardinal dropped his plans to attend the commencement.

Leahy decided on the initiative when it became clear last May that Catholics of all ages – including traditional donors for the archdiocese – had lost faith in the hierarchy, says Jack Dunn, college spokesman.

Indeed, at the opening event – carried by satellite to alumni gatherings and other colleges across the US – prominent businessman and philanthropist Jack Connors Jr., a former close adviser to Cardinal Law, offered the bluntest assessment:

"Those church leaders who have made a series of bad judgments may continue to hold onto their titles, but they will be leaders in title only," he said. He recommended that Catholics redirect their financial support.

Leahy has emphasized that the aim of the initiative is not dissent but to bring the still-anguished Catholic community together in the search for solutions and to rebuild trust. One goal, he says, is to help Catholics become more informed about core teachings, and clearer about what they believe.

Kevin Meme, a senior at the school, sees the program as formally addressing issues that have long been under discussion in dorm rooms. An economics major, he is on a student subcommittee to help plan the events.

"It's a chance to clear the air and also to explain church teachings often not well understood by students," he says.

Leading Catholic theologians and authors are being invited to speak, scholarly papers will be published, and small-group discussion fostered across the city. No decision has yet been made on whether the college will issue specific recommendations during the two years.

BC's initiative is being applauded on campuses across the US, though other schools are not likely to follow suit.

"It's a very good idea. Hopefully, they are in a position to speak boldly or offer a vision that involves thinking outside the box," says Chester Gillis, chairman of the theology department at Georgetown University in Washington. "That's what universities should do, and bishops should welcome the initiative."

Georgetown is also a Jesuit-run school, but only 57 percent of students are Catholic, and the crisis is being addressed largely by professors in class.