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Law's words frame new play

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Earlier stories

Spotlight Report

Crisis issues hold church's future, BC chief says

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 9/19/2003

Even as a new archbishop in Boston takes steps to resolve the clergy sexual abuse scandal, the issues provoked by the crisis "must be addressed if the Church of the United States is once again to flourish," the president of Boston College declared last night.

Kicking off the second year of the Catholic university's sweeping examination of the state of the Catholic Church since the sexual abuse scandal surfaced, the Rev. William P. Leahy said that over the last year it has become clear to him that many Catholics, especially women, are unhappy with their roles in the church.

There also is a broad gap between the sexual behavior of Catholics and the sexual ethics preached by the church, he said, and the church's position as a moral and social force in the United States has been damaged.

"After more than a year of listening, programs, and activities, we have learned a great deal about the state of the Catholic Church in America," Leahy last night told an audience of about 2,500 at BC's Conte Forum. "It is evident the problem of sexual abuse by priests and bishops, and its toleration at the highest levels, have brought into public view issues that have been simmering below the surface for many years."

Over the last year Boston College has drawn an estimated 13,000 people to 75 events examining various facets of the contemporary Catholic Church, with a focus on examining the role of laypeople, the transmission of faith to young people, and sexuality. Numerous other Catholic institutions have followed suit, holding seminars, conferences, and discussions, but BC's effort appears to be the most sweeping, reflecting its position as the largest Catholic school in the Archdiocese of Boston.

Over the past year, the Vatican approved new church law for the Roman Catholic Church in America requiring the removal of abusive priests from ministry; Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston resigned over his role in the scandal; and the new archbishop of Boston, Sean P. O'Malley, reached a tentative settlement to the more than 500 legal claims facing the church as a result of the crisis.

"Much has changed for the better," said BC trustees chairman Jack Connors Jr. At the kickoff event last year, Connors urged Catholics to consider withholding contributions from the archdiocese; last night, he said "our money" will be needed to help the church.

"Only the most optimistic among us could have envisioned a more hopeful, honest first 100 days for our new archbishop," Connors said. But Connors also rued the closings of Catholic schools and parishes and a lack of openness to debate, saying "our great faith was not built by closing buildings or closing minds."

Speakers included students who said they were unsettled by the church's response to the crisis. Patrick B. Downes, a student at BC's School of Education, called it "very scary" that the church had been so slow to remove abusive priests, but so rapid to criticize same-sex marriage.

But Downes said he had chosen to be confirmed by the church in the midst of the crisis, because otherwise, "I would have denied myself the humanity that God is trying to give all of us."

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.


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