News Analysis

Should a Catholic university president tell a bishop to resign?

How do Catholic colleges help to reform the Church in the wake of the latest revelations of clerical sex abuse? Answers vary widely across the hundreds of tertiary institutions that identify with the Faith. Dr Dennis DePerro, the president of Bonaventure University, has taken an unusually proactive tack, calling on his local ordinary, Bishop Richard Malone of Buffalo, to resign.

While Dr DePerro admires Bishop Malone’s “unflinching desire to repair the damage” caused by abuse, he observes that “sometimes, the most courageous thing a man can do is to step aside and recognise that his voice is no longer being heard and that he stands in the way of creating true resolution.”

To be sure, Bishop Malone (pictured) has faced considerably more than the ordinary amount of criticism. Last autumn, a former diocesan employee went public with concerns that the diocese was covering up the potential threat to the laity. According to Siobhan O’Connor, a list of more than 100 names of credibly accused priests was edited down to 42, in order to protect the diocese’s reputation and assets. She also criticised the diocese’s victim-help hotline, saying: “The calls were actually sent to an abandoned office that was then dialed into remotely from the victim assistance coordinator. So for the first three weeks, you actually couldn’t have received a live response.” (The diocese has said that O’Connor’s allegations are “contradictory”).

So Dr DePerro wouldn’t be the only layman in Buffalo who believes that Bishop Malone ought to resign. Still, others argue that, while he might not be the most media-savvy prelate in America, Bishop Malone has followed every protocol for handling abuse in the diocese. A spokeswoman for the diocese responded to Dr DePerro’s comment by saying: “We suspect that Dr DePerro has not fully studied the carefully developed and well-publicised protocols of the Diocese of Buffalo.” She insisted that “the bishop has received helpful input from others, including the president of Canisius College and other members of the Movement to Restore Trust, on how diocesan procedures might be improved. The bishop would have welcomed and still would accept such input from Dr DePerro, but to criticise the bishop for following established protocols is unjust.”

Regardless, to have Catholic university officials publicly criticising their own bishop is practically unprecedented. Even very conservative colleges tend to be reticent in their dealings with the clergy, since the diocese has a say in everything from their chaplaincy programme to whether they can officially call themselves “Catholic”.

Still unusual, however, was the response by the president of one such conservative college: Ave Maria University in Florida. Many were surprised when its president, Jim Towey, issued a blistering attack on Pope Francis’s critics in the wake of the publication of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s “testimony”. He claimed the letter was part of a “rift between Pope Francis and some conservative members of the Church hierarchy”.

Mr Towey argued that Archbishop Viganò timed its publication “to inflict the maximum damage possible to the Pope’s credibility, and the choreographed chorus of support by others in league with them, was just as troubling.” He added: “Contrary to the popular narrative, most conservative Catholics are not following suit and embracing their defiance, and certainly not on our campus … when Church dissent becomes openly hostile and rebellious, and some members of the hierarchy assert their opinions as if they were elected pope instead of Francis, faithful Catholics like our students will rally to the Supreme Pontiff’s defence.”

Of course, defending the Pope isn’t the same as defending the local ordinary. But the question they seek to answer, about the role of Catholic educators in such crises, is the same. Dr DePerro seems to give the impression of institutions ordered towards internal reform, whereas Mr Towey’s are ordered towards defending against Catholicism’s enemies. If you see universities principally as a means of changing the culture within the Church, you may sympathise more with Dr DePerro; if you believe their first duty is to train young Catholics as apologists and evangelists, you may agree more with Mr Towey.

Naturally, whether any of this is effective remains to be seen. University presidents aren’t the class of people one usually looks to for leadership in such crises as this one. That’s why some onlookers criticised Mr Towey’s defence of Pope Francis, saying he inserted his college into a messy dispute for no obvious reason. And many no doubt would argue that, whether they’re calling for a prelate to resign or rebuffing those who do, Catholic educators’ job of forming young minds is difficult enough. Wading into these controversies doesn’t make it any easier.