Leading Catholic intellectuals sparred at an on-campus conference this weekend over how the Catholic Church should best respond to recent allegations of sexual abuse and cover-ups.
St. Thomas More, the Catholic center at Yale, hosted the conference, titled “Governance, Accountability, and the Future of the Church,” which drew hundreds of spectators to several panels Friday and Saturday. While some members of the clergy said the church’s problems could be solved with greater openness and transparency in church activities, other speakers at the conference argued that deeper structural changes may be necessary.
The conference opened Friday with a keynote address by Donald Wuerl, the bishop of Pittsburgh, who said transparency could bring accountability to the church. But he said the structure of the church was divinely given and much of it could not change.
Peter Steinfels, a columnist for the New York Times, responded to the bishop’s address, arguing that transparency was not enough to solve the church’s problems. He said the church needs real power-sharing between clergy and laity.
Steinfels also emphasized the differences between what Wuerl referred to as “openness” and true accountability.
“Openness seems to be a necessary but incomplete definition of accountability,” Steinfels said. “The success of lay-dominated review boards handling matters of sexual abuse has very little to do with openness, since much of their business must be conducted confidentially.”
The bishop’s speech and Steinfels’ response set the tone for the entire conference.
In discussion sessions, breakout sessions, forums, and speeches that continued throughout the weekend, many of the conference’s attendees and speakers said they shared Steinfels’ idea that a change was necessary — not just “openness” or transparency.
This theme carried through even to the very last panel, which featured Kathleen McChesney, who leads the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ effort to deal with the sexual-abuse crisis, and James Post, the president of Voice of the Faithful.
Post co-founded Voice of the Faithful, a lay Catholic organization, in January 2002 in response to the sexual abuse crisis. Although several American bishops have banned the organization in their dioceses, Voice of the Faithful now counts over 30,000 members. George Hunt, who is the former editor of the Jesuit magazine America, moderated the final panel.
Post, too, took issue with Bishop Wuerl.
“We support the victims, and we support priests of integrity,” Post said, “but we feel there needs to be some accountability — some structural change in the church.”
Post, who criticized bishops who have banned his organization, made it clear that “faithful Catholics” were determined to change the church.
Robert Beloin, the University’s Catholic chaplain, said the conference was consistent with the mission of the chapel.
“One of the major components of the chapel’s ministry is to foster Catholic intellectual life at the level of university discourse,” Beloin said. “With the crisis in the church we’ve been experiencing, the board of trustees suggested a major conference to address the underlying issues of governance and accountability.”
Beloin said he believed the conference could provide Yale students with new ways to think about the crisis and allow them to “ask the hard questions.”
Kerry Robinson, the director of development for the St. Thomas More center, said she thought it was crucial for St. Thomas More to address the sexual abuse crisis.
“We would be negligent if we weren’t to examine this crisis,” Robinson said.