Panelists Tackle Problems in Catholic Church

More than 150 people filled the ARCO Forum of Public Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government (KSG) last night for a wide-ranging and controversial panel discussion entitled “The Catholic Church in Crisis.”

The event, organized by the Institute of Politics, addressed the fallout from incidents of sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy, especially in the Archdiocese of Boston.

The panel included moderator David Nyhan ’62 and Bradshaw Professor of Public Policy Management Mary Jo Bane, as well as former Boston mayor and current U.S. ambassador to the Vatican Ray Flynn and Rev. Christopher Coyne, director of worship for the archdiocese.

The speakers voiced varying opinions on the Church’s degree of culpability.

Flynn defended the accused priests, saying that, even if some priests had committed sex abuse crimes, not all of them were pedophiles.

“Those may have been priests who molested 17-, 18-, 16-year-olds. Do you consider a priest with a 17-year-old a pedophile?” Flynn asked.

His question prompted many calls of “yes” from the audience.

“Well that’s not the definition,” he snapped—eliciting further murmurs of disapproval from many in attendance.

“Flynn really surprised me,” said Carroll W. Toohey, a Catholic Cantabrigian who attended the discussion.

Coyne also expressed his sentiment on the question of culpability, agreeing that the Church did bear some responsibility.

“We’re the ones who made the story here because we did not keep our house in order,” he said.

The panel also tackled the issue of how the incidents of pedophilia and sexual abuse have called into question the tightly-held Catholic tenet of celibacy in the priesthood and the impact of lay people voicing their opinions on the issue.

“There’s a great deal of energy and a good deal of concern from people who want to make reform within the Church,” Flynn said. “The Church is not going to change its position on a number of these issues.”

Bane said the scandal has amplified the laity’s voice.

Lay people “are raising questions about the priesthood,” she said. “This translates to a lack of trust in the Church.”

“I do think the people in the diocese are starting to recognize that we, not the hierarchy, are the Church,” she added.

The question also arose whether Cardinal Bernard F. Law ’53, the archbishop of Boston accused of improperly dealing with accusations of sexual abuse by clergy, should resign—an option that Coyne firmly rejected because of the uncertainty it would engender.

“Cardinal Law might resign tomorrow, and we don’t know who we’re going to get,” Coyne said.

Flynn said that Law had made a mistake, but that the public should consider the mistake in its larger context.

“It’s very painful to me to see people mistake this man,” he said. “I just ask the people of this city to look at his record.”

—Staff writer Alexander J. Blenkinsopp can be reached at blenkins@fas.harvard.edu.