Fordham Reacts to Vatican Controversy


The recent controversies in the Catholic Church have prompted Catholics around the world to react. (Courtesy of Fordham the Press Office)

Published: May 5, 2010

Over the past few months, the Catholic Church has been dealing with the issue of sexual child abuse among the clergy as several accusations of past abuses have come to light. Although Fordham has not released an official statement on the controversy or the Vatican’s reaction, Rev. Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of Fordham, called the incidents “terrible scandals,” and said “they have shaken the faith of everyone in the church.”On April 12, the Vatican released online an official guideline as to how bishops should handle such accusations when they occur. While virtually everyone at Fordham shares McShane’s reaction to the events, suggestions for solutions to the apparent problem vary.

“One thing we know never ever works anymore is the code of silence,” said James Fisher, professor of theology and American studies. “Codes of silence are impossible in the world we live in. [The Church is] faced with a real dilemma… they are going to have to be more open, which will lead to more revelations.”

“We need to ask if Catholics in authority are open to the idea of the church as a culture itself, which puts it in a comparative frame work with other cultures,” Fisher said.

Even if the tradition of silence is abandoned, the question of whether these abuse cases should be handled within the church or become a civil matter remains.

Rev. Damian O’Connell, S.J., assistant director of Campus Ministry, said, “I think that if a crime is committed, that should be brought to the attention of the authorities [civil and ecclesiastic]… It is no service to the church to circumvent civil law here; not for the victim or for the church authorities. That is counter-productive and complicit with the crime,” O’Connell said.

Rev. Vincent DeCola, S.J., assistant dean for the First Year Experience at Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC), said, “Government regulation is not the answer and threatens an important constitutional principle of the separation of church and state.” “But, clearly, certain transgressions should be and are being treated as crimes and prosecuted just the same as for anyone in our country. The Church is not, and should not be, outside the law.”

Rev. Michael V. Tueth, S.J., associate chair of communication and media studies, said, “Any case of molestation should be immediately reported to civil authorities and make it a civil or criminal case, not just something that the church deals with… It should be public record.”

Regardless of whether cases are handled within the Vatican or civil authorities, much debate has been raised as to how members of the clergy should be reprimanded and who is to blame.

“[Sexual abuse] can never be justified, explained away or rationalized,” O’Connell said. “If I were the bishop, I wouldn’t send that person further out [into the recesses of the church], I would want to be sitting around a table talking and making him accountable for his actions. In every level of society, protection of the innocent has to be in our minds and hearts,” O’Connell said.

Tueth said that he blamed the bishops who “turn[ed] a blind eye” to accusations and reassigned priests whom he believes they should not have reassigned.

“Make examples of [these bishops] and say we don’t tolerate this,” Tueth said. “You can’t blame the Vatican. This is the sort of thing that should be handled by bishops,” Tueth said.

“I think the main problem is the church authorities over the centuries has been much more concerned about preserving the reputation and life of the institution, the ability to exist publicly, rather than abuses and injustices to individuals,” Tueth said.

The plethora of media coverage of this subject has raised some questions as to whether it is justified reporting or an attempt to discredit the authority of the church.

“This is something that is important to be dealt with and I’m glad that [the media is] doing it,” Tueth said. “Let’s make everything as clear and transparent as possible, with proper but limited attention to confidentiality to protect the accused as well as the victims.

O’Connell said, “The press does a favor to the Catholic community by throwing a searchlight on this phenomenon, which is corrupt, evil, sinful, destructive and counter to everything that the church claims to be.”

“But I think that the motives [of the press] are not pure. They want to undermine the moral authority of the church. You could say that [the accused priests] have done more to undermine the moral authority of the Church than the secular press. The abuse has legitimized the stereotype.”

The solution for resolving the effects of sexual abuse cases within the church will require more thought and a change of practices.

“I do not think that more transparency, more openness to victims and more honest accounting of blame would tarnish the Church’s reputation,” DeCola said. “I think it is the only way for the Church to regain a good reputation.”

Fisher suggested looking to the Jesuit tradition as a possible solution. “The Jesuit profile in recent decades has been to remain very open to the world,” he said. “The Jesuit tradition intellectually and spiritually is, to me, the model for renewal of the Church.”