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Spotlight Report

  Adrian Walker  

Talking sense for Catholics

5/20/2002

In the midst of a crisis like the sexual abuse scandal that has roiled the Roman Catholic Church for months, acts of grace become magnified. And so the Rev. William P. Leahy, president of Boston College, deserves credit for taking the lead in initiating a discussion of the scandal and how it has affected the relationship of rank-and-file Catholics to the church.

In his residence at BC last week, he tried to explain why he feels such an undertaking is so important, and why he thinks this is an appropriate role for his college.

''We have an injured and besieged laity,'' he said. ''A Catholic university ought to be a meeting place.''

Leahy envisions a program, beginning in the fall, that will run for two years - or however long it takes - to examine the issue. It would include courses and other, less formal approaches that are still being worked out. The program would not be limited to BC students, he said, but would include all Catholics interested in discussing the faith.

This is believed to be a threatening idea for Leahy's neighbors at the Archdiocese of Boston. After all, it would provide a public, high-profile forum for all the criticism that has been simmering for months.

Relations between Boston College and the archdiocese are cooler than usual these days. Weeks ago, Law decided against appearing at BC's commencement this year when campus unhappiness over his attendance became known. BC officials have even gone so far as to state that they'd like to buy the cardinal's residence. (It's not for sale - at least not yet.) The planned program is clearly a provocative act in the current climate.

''The hierarchy is apprehensive that there may be a misunderstanding of church teaching,'' Leahy said.

But this program is exactly what the archdiocese needs. As the weekly protests at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross attest, there is a population that feels disenfranchised from their church. Every aspect of church doctrine will be open for discussion - abortion, celibacy, anything that people want to talk about, Leahy said.

The soft-spoken Leahy certainly doesn't come across like a renegade. Currently wrapping up his sixth year as president of BC, he became a Jesuit in 1967, and spent more than a decade rising through the ranks at Marquette University before coming to Boston. Questioning things is second nature; being adversarial for its own sake is not part of his history. Leahy actually offered a ringing personal endorsement of celibacy, noting that he has had a ''very rich and meaningful'' personal life as a celibate.

But he is obviously ahead of the chancery in understanding the need to repair relations with the congregants - who, indeed, are the church. The people holding signs on Washington Street are there, in part, because they have so few other options to express their frustration.

It isn't just some of the laity who seem frustrated. Last month, Leahy published an essay in the Globe describing his joy at being a member of the priesthood. Though the piece does not say so explicitly, it was obviously a defense of his embattled vocation.

''Like so many others, I feel betrayed and saddened by the shameful incidents of sexual misconduct committed by some priests, so devastasting and harmful, especially to children and their families.

''But I trust that God and his people will sustain me and my fellow priests, now and in the future, and that my vocation, with all of its gifts, will never cease to be the wonderfully fulfilling experience that it is for me today.''

This scandal is playing out in a bewildering array of venues - from deposition rooms to local parishes to the Vatican. And yet there may be a place for a simple idea: that the beginning of the healing process is simply to sit, ponder, and debate.

''My hope is we will help foster a more engaged laity,'' Leahy said.

Adrian Walker can be reached at walker@globe.com..

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 5/20/2002.
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