Manhattan College Talks Catholic Controversy: Church Sexual Abuse Panel

by August Kissel, Web Editor

On Tuesday, Feb. 26, students and faculty alike gathered in the Alumni room of O’Malley Library. The occasion was a panel discussion titled “Sexual Abuse: A Project for Justice in the Church and Society” including Dr. Natalia Imperatori-Lee, Father Tom Franks, and Brother Jack Curran, and moderated by Prof. Heidi Fury. This was the second event of the annual Peace and Justice Week.

Each of the panelists were meant to be a representation of a different level of involvement in the sexual abuse crisis. Dr. Imperatori-Lee is an intersectional, feminist theologian, who represented the expertise from the perspective of a lay person. Fr. Tom Franks is the only priest who is also an active member of the Manhattan College faculty, and lastly Br. Jack represented the Lasallian connection to the crisis.

The panel was hosted in a question and answer format. The questions began with general information about what the scandal is. Each of the panelists described each of their point of views of what the scandal is and how it has been perpetuated by the Catholic Church.

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Dr. Imperatori-Lee began by explaining that a bulk of the crimes took place in the 1940’s-1960’s, but have come to light from 1995 and onward into today. She went on to explain that this is a multifaceted situation.

“The main crime is the sexual abuse of children, minors, anyone under the age of 18 counts as a minor, therefore any priest who had sexual contact with a minor committed a crime,” said Dr. Imperatori-Lee. “In 1995 the National Catholic Reporter started talking about potential sexual abuse cases in the church, a reporter named Jason Barry, who left that beat because it was weighing on him so heavily to report the victims stories so often. He was not only reporting on the sexual abuse of certain children, but also the church’s knowledge and complicity in this and the practice of moving offender priests from diocese to another without informing the bishop of the diocese to which the offender priest was going, thereby enabling more abuse to take place and the abuser priest to have access to more and more victims.”

Fr. Tom chimed in with his perspective from a faith-based perspective.

“This idea of how pervasive the scandal becomes in light of the church as an institution that is supposed to representative of God, bringing people to God, and helping to build faith. This is a breach of trust that will take a long time for the church to restore,” added Fr. Tom

The panel moved forward to discuss why and how this all took place. Again, Dr. Imperatori-Lee exemplified that this is a complex issue and that there is no single cause or solution. The main cause for the heightened reporting has come down to our transition in human thought in the terms of sexual assault, the rights of a child, and the rise of sexual abuse reports that have risen in the recent years.

“There are things that we see now that are different than the way we saw them in the 1940’s,” said Dr. Imperatori-Lee.

She elaborated on the following facts. For many years there was a misunderstanding of pedeophilia and a belief that it is like a substance addiction: something that could be cured and managed through rehabilitation and therapy. The understanding of consent has drastically changed with sexuality being understood as a negotiation of power.

In 1990 the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child became effective and certified that children have rights, and that includes the right to say no. Lastly there is clericalism, which is the romanticism and hierarchy of the priest. It gives them superhuman capabilities, like that of being free of sin. This culture of clericalism leads to the enabling of of the church and the priests, nuns and brothers.

She also touched upon the teaching process of sexuality in the church, and how it is a continued culture of secrecy.

“We do not have a healthy, holy, version of sexuality,” said Dr. Imperatori-Lee.

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The panel continued to answer student questions and address Manhattan College’s own personal responsibility as a Catholic Institution. All students were invited to the panel discussion in an email from the Office of the President, which stated that we, a Catholic Institution, do not condone the actions of the church in regards to this scandal and that we stand in solidarity with the victims who have been affected by this crisis.

“Finally, we pledge our own considerable resources, as higher education institutions, in being of assistance to the Church as it strives to address the sins of the past and restore trust through provisions that “favor accountability and transparency over clericalism and secrecy.” Our prayers are important, yes, but so are our research, learning, and wisdom,” read an email from the Office of the President.

Manhattan College is as much a part of this web as the rest of the Catholic world. There is accountability to be held at every level, including that of our own clerical tendencies and lack of discussion of sexuality on campus. As the school moves forward the panel reiterated again and again that this is not the end of the college’s dialogue on this scandal, but is only the first step to work for a better future – ideally, a future of honesty, open dialogue and transparency.

“In the Lasallian tradition, the Star of Bethlehem, it is the Star of Faith that leads us to truth. We need to search of that truth and we need to speak that truth. For me as a Brother, that part of the Lasallian Heritage, as uncomfortable and as unfortunate that this is, we are committed to seeking the truth and speaking that truth and moving forward so that healing can happen,” said Br. Jack.