Boston College’s Church in the 21st Century Center (C21) hosted another forum in the wake of last summer’s Pennsylvania grand jury report, which exposed decades of sexual abuse allegations within the Catholic Church. The panel was titled “Why I Remain a Catholic: Belief in a Time of Turmoil” and addressed different personal and institutional reactions to the scandal.
The four panelists—two BC professors and two current students—shared stories about their anger in the wake of the scandals while also providing an academic lens for the path going forward.
University President Rev. William P. Leahy, S.J. took the stage at Robsham Theater after an introduction by Karen Kiefer, director of the C21 Center. Leahy took a moment to acknowledge the importance of public dialogue during a time of crisis for the church.
“The Pennsylvania grand jury report of earlier in the summer about decades-old cases of clerical sexual abuse, the alleged misconduct by former Archbishop McCarrick, and the inability of the American hierarchy and Vatican officials to agree on new policies to address sexual abuse by priests and bishops have taken a serious toll on the Catholic community and our country, leaving too many Catholics hurt, angry, and questioning their continued involvement in the Church,” he said.
Leahy then passed the microphone to the evening’s moderator, R. Nicholas Burns, BC ’78. After a long career in public service—one that spanned from a stint as United States ambassador to both NATO and Greece to working as the undersecretary of state for political affairs—he now teaches diplomacy and international relations at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and sits on the BC Board of Trustees.
The panel was comprised of Tiziana Dearing, a professor in the BC School of Social Work; Stephen Pope, a professor of theology at BC; Sean Barry, grand knight of the BC Knights of Columbus and MCAS ’21; and Stephanie Sanchez, SSW and STM ’18.
Burns opened up discussion by asking the panelists about their personal struggle with and individual response to the current crisis. He first threw the question to Dearing, who he described as having lived the social gospel.
Dearing served as the first female president of Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of Boston. Catholic Charities is a national network of social services and charities that has operated for over 100 years. She began by sharing her belief that she rose to this position as a reaction to the church’s sexual abuse scandal in the early 2000s.
“I think it was part of—not all of, but part of—what led the Archdiocese to put a woman in that really visible leadership role, and I was that first woman,” Dearing said. “And that then led to a very acute and specific experience in running one of the social ministries of the church.”
She made it clear that neither crisis challenged her faith, but rather they tattered her relationship with the church as an institution—a wound that still has not fully healed. Her faith has since helped her raise her children, who were born just as the first scandal began to break, in the church.
In a theme that would echo throughout the event, Dearing professed that anger has formed a large part of her reaction as well, especially as gender shapes her experiences even when she does not intend it to.
Burns introduced the next speaker, Barry, by pointing out that he, like his peers at BC, has grown up in a post-sex abuse scandal church. Barry reflected on the affected individuals and communities that he had personally come to know, and how they shaped his understanding of the situation.
“I think that I let go of it now, but my first response was rage,” Barry said. “I remember when I first identified this, I was sitting in Mass and they were doing the collection, and all I could think of was, ‘Do I want to put my dollar inside the collection basket? Where’s this money going? Is this going to actually help the poor?’”
Like Dearing, Barry divided his faith and the church, which he cast as an institution that simply mobilizes his faith. He also credited BC with strengthening his faith, which wasn’t always constant.
The conversation then pivoted to Sanchez, who is currently pursuing a master’s degree in theology. From her perspective, the recent allegations have only added fuel to the fire and motivated her studies.
“These are questions that we’re asking with our undergrad students as well,” Sanchez said. “So this isn’t just something that’s a graduate issue or a professor issue. This is for anyone who’s Catholic and desires to ask these questions.”
Burns briefly strayed from the path to ask Sanchez, the only Latinx member of the panelists, about the potential effect the scandals are having on the rest of the world. Latinx Catholics are the fastest-growing group within the Church and now make up the majority of churchgoers under the age of 18.
“We need to ask [the global community], ‘Why are people leaving our Church?” said Sanchez. “Is it because we’re not reaching out to them? Is it because our Masses, our communities aren’t welcoming?”
Pope, who had remained silent until that point, shared some information from his upcoming paper, which takes a look at the scope and depth of the crisis. He warned the audience that the problem at hand is so pervasive and profound that we have only barely scratched the surface.
“I think there are layers of deception, misplaced loyalty, [and] hidden suffering that we’re just beginning to hear about,” he said.
In his eyes, it could be even worse in other countries, especially ones whose governments and journalists are hesitant to challenge the Catholic Church. He compared the current state of affairs to a group lost in a dark forest, one who has suddenly found itself lost because its guides have neglected to bring flashlights.
In response to Burns’ question on the path forward, Pope laid out a three-pronged solution: to truly listen and accept the victims, rather than superficially assure them and minimize their pain; to cultivate empathy rather than engage in intellectual debate; and to imagine a different church, one separate from current structures and roles.
His three fellow panel members jumped on the third point, emphasizing that the church should include traditionally ignored groups: women and young people.
“One cannot go forward with the same team—you can’t,” Dearing said. “I actually said to a colleague at church on Sunday, ‘I want to see more women engaged [with the church], and I don’t have a good explanation other than “duh!”’”
Barry jumped in, decrying the tired platitude of young adults as “future leaders.”
“And the important thing … is to realize that the young people in the room and myself, we are part of the community,” he said. “And then when we continue to say that ‘you’re the future leaders of the Church’ … it alienates us from what we can do today.”
Featured Image by Jack Miller / Heights Editor