“Our Church will always be a mixed community of holiness and sin,” said Brain Flanagan, author of Stumbling in Holiness, said at the March 14-15 symposium on abuse in Toronto. Photo by Michael Swan

Abuse crisis a chance to change ‘future of our Church’

  • March 19, 2019

American author and theologian Brian Flanagan believes it is natural that victims of sexual abuse remain suspicious of the Church.

“There is no good reason for survivors of abuse to trust us,” Flanagan told a symposium on sexual abuse at the University of St. Michael’s College.

Flanagan is the author of Stumbling in Holiness, a 2018 book that examines what Catholics believe about the Church in the light of 30 years of sexual abuse stories. He was the opening speaker at the March 14-15 Toronto symposium titled “The Wounded Body of Christ.”

“If this is not the moment for thinking of the longer term future of our Church, then we have failed,” said Flanagan.

Having grown up with metaphors that described the Church as “the bride of Christ,” it has become difficult for Catholics to confront sin in the Church, he said.

“Our Church will always be a mixed community of holiness and sin,” said Flanagan.

Organized and sponsored by St. Michael’s College and King’s University College in London, Ont., the symposium is the first of two abuse conferences at Toronto Catholic institutions this spring. Regis College will join with the University of Toronto School of Social Work March 28-29 to present “The Dignity of Young People in a Digital Age.” 

The conference will feature Fr. Hans Zollner, president of the Centre for Child Protection at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome,and Elizabeth Letourneau, the director of the Moore Centre for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse at John Hopkins University. Zollner was one of the organizers of the February sexual abuse summit at the Vatican. Letourneau also spoke at that summit.

The Catholic response to the sexual abuse crisis can’t just be protocols, tribunals and canon law. Theology and theologians must have something to say about “how power is used and misused” in the Church, Dominican Fr. Darren Dias told The Catholic Register.

Dias is teaming up with fellow St. Mike’s theologian Michael Attridge to offer a new course this fall for graduate theology students. “Abuse in the Church” will look at the issue from every angle in Catholic thought — Scripture, tradition, Church history and systematic theology.

Dias says the Church is already changing and the theologian’s job is to understand that change.

“The Church might become more authentically itself,” he said. “It won’t be a change that makes the Church less of what it is.”

Toronto abuse victim Mark Hawkins marvelled at the openness of St. Michael’s College. Hawkins has spoken at Lutheran churches, told his story to police officers studying to become detectives and even appeared on the Oprah show. But the symposium was the first time Hawkins addressed a Catholic audience about a 1970s childhood spent under the sexual and psychological control of Fr. John O’Donnell at St. Ann Parish in Toronto.

“I’m glad they’re having this symposium and that the Church is talking about it,” he said. “The problem was the way the Church handled it.”

O’Donnell cultivated a relationship with Hawkins beginning when Hawkins was a 10-year-old altar boy. 

The priest introduced the boy to alcohol at age 11 and sex soon after. At 12 Hawkins slashed his wrists. “I always looked at myself as the perpetrator,” he said.

It wasn’t until Grade 10 that the damaged and angry young man was able to walk away from his abuser. 

“It’s not normal for a 40-year-old man to spend so much time with a 10-year-old boy. That should have raised flags,” said Hawkins. 

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