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McGill hosts conference on clergy sex abuse

Lindsay Cameron
Lindsay Cameron

To many, the clerical abuse scandal in the Catholic clergy was something that happened in 2002 when media reports were first released, and has only appeared in the public consciousness sporadically since then. This is certainly not the case within the Catholic Church. On Oct. 14 and 15, McGill hosted “Trauma and Transformation: the Catholic Church and the Sexual Abuse Crisis,” a conference which drew together seven bishops, 50 nuns and priests, dozens of academics, and around 20 students to talk about clergy abuse, and how to resolve and prevent it.

“It is significant that this is the first time there has been a major academic conference that is at a secular university,” Dan Cere, a McGill Religious Studies professor and conference co-host, said.

“Most of the conversations that have gone to date [within the Catholic Church] have tended to focus on …  ‘what are the codes, what are the protocols that we need to put in place to stop this?’ They haven’t really looked at what the systemic issues are.”

A study released in May 2011 by the John Jay School of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York looked at statistics of sexual abuse of minors within the Catholic Church from 1950 to 2010 in America. Principal investigator Karen Terry found that incidents of abuse had peaked in the 1970s and 1980s, implying that abuse may not, as previously thought, be endemic within the Catholic Church, but could be linked with particular phenomena of that era.

“We found that the rise in abusive behavior within the Church was consistent with rises in other types of behavior in society,” Terry said.

These included rises in crime, drug usage, divorce, and premarital sex. While Terry emphasized that these behaviors did not cause abuse, the social factors that caused these behaviors to increase may also have contributed towards the increase in abuse in the Catholic Church.

“The dioceses at this point need to continue to provide safe environment programs … but they still need to be held accountable, and they need to increase their transparency in responses to abuse,” Terry said, recommending changes for the church based on the study.

Archbishop Mancini of Halifax suggested that reforms need to be made within the church, including the church’s age-old teachings on sexuality.

“The fact is that sexuality is part of the human condition, and when it is ignored, minimized, or inadequately understood, the result is devastation in people’s lives.”

Instead of ignoring sexuality the way the church has in the past, Mancini urged more discussion on the subject, specifically to allow priests to understand themselves and develop.

Another conference participant, Fr. George Wilson, indicated that the Catholic Church should allow parishoners more power in matters of faith than had been previously granted.

“We should have laymen and laywomen on the board [to ordain priests] making that decision [of who becomes a priest and who does not],” Wilson said.

McGill Student Ombudsperson Spencer Boudreau felt that the abuse that occurred within the Catholic Church could be examined as a case study for other large institutions.

“I think the conference has a message to students that it’s important to speak about any kind of abuse,” Boudreau said.

“I’m in education. A big issue now for example is bullying that goes on in schools and on the Internet … that’s a form of abuse that maybe all of us have to be more sensitive about … I think that we always have to be sensitive to abuse.”

Students felt that the experience was unique and contradicted the views long thought to be true about the Catholic Church’s attitudes towards sexual abuse.

“I think the image from this conference is one that sharply contrasts the one that the mass media has been portraying since this issue erupted … that the church is complacent, that it’s not interested in improvement … but the sense that you get from a conference like this … is that they do care and that they are being proactive…. ” Julian Paparella, a U0 science student volunteering at the event, said.

“As the younger generation, we’re not necessarily directly affected as individuals by this particular issue, but it’s one about which we need to be knowledgable in order that in the future, we may not experience what we did in the past.”

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