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Letter From The Dean

fall 2002

Dear Alumni and Friends of Boston College Law School:

You have probably read - if not in the University's publications, then in the New York Times, the Boston Globe, or other press accounts-about Boston College's initiative on The Church in the 21st Century. In response to the scandal of clergy sexual abuse that has afflicted the American Catholic Church, President William P. Leahy suggested last May that Boston College, as one of America's premier Catholic universities, had an important role to play in studying the causes and cures for this terrible institutional failure. I stress that the failure is institutional because it cannot be explained or excused as a random conjunction of sinful acts by a few deviant priests. To be sure, each of them is personally responsible for his behavior, and should answer to our law as well as God's. But there must also be a malady within the Church itself if it has permitted this abuse to go on so long and so secretly without taking measures to end it. Diagnosing that is a complicated matter. There is blame enough to go around for bishops, pastors, and seminaries for their failures in training and supervising the offenders. If they had done their jobs as we have a right to expect, much of this would not have happened. At a university, though, we look at problems on a different level. Are there, below the layer of human errors, causes on the level of ideas? Some issues, like the idea of celibacy or the role of the laity in the Church, are of special interest to departments like Theology or to the Graduate School of Social Work.

A Role for a Catholic Law School
But as anyone who has attended to the news accounts knows, it is the legal ramifications of the hierarchy's actions that have attracted the most attention, and on that score there may be no institution in the United States better situated to think about the crisis than Boston College Law School. Consider some of the legal issues that will arise:

  • Torts: What is the theory for holding the institutional church liable? Respondeat superior? Breach of fiduciary duty? Negligence? Does the first amendment entail a higher standard of fault?
  • Criminal Law: Grand juries have been empanelled in a number of places to investigate the conduct of bishops. Prosecutors have suggested theories of culpability ranging from conspiracy to RICO.
  • Evidence: Are there privileges or immunities that protect church records or conversations against discovery?
  • Corporation Law: Who within the church has authority to settle claims? What church assets are at risk? Congregational churches are organized on a local basis, and liability is limited accordingly. In the Catholic Church the bishop controls all diocesan property as corporation sole.
  • Bankruptcy, Constitutional Law, Canon Law, etc.

On several occasions I have heard people express concern that the Catholic identity of Boston College and the Law School will require a certain orthodoxy, or suppress unorthodox opinions, among its faculty and students. No school that regulates ideas can justly call itself a university. Indeed, it is precisely because we are committed to the search for truth in an atmosphere of academic freedom that the Law School can render a useful service to the Church and the cause of justice. It is natural that we should have a particular interest in the intersection of law and religion. (Though this is not our only focus.) But when people address that subject here they do not speak for (or against) the church hierarchy. They follow where their inquiries lead them.

In its intellectual life, a Jesuit, Catholic law school will want to attend to a variety of religiously salient issues. Consider a few illustrations. In the last three semesters we have held conferences on the death penalty; on the shift from separationism to neutrality in establishment clause jurisprudence; and on tax exemptions for religious groups involved in political activity. We have offered courses on Law and Religion, Canon Law, Jewish Law, the Religious Foundations of Western Law, and The Moral Responsibility of Lawyers. We held a discussion of Religion in the Legal Workplace (sponsored by the Christian Legal Society, the Jewish Law Students Association, and the St. Thomas More Society), and exhibited the Lillie Goldstein Judaica Collection, which is on loan to our library this year. We have hosted several dozen speakers on topics of religious interest ranging from Memoirs of a Holocaust Survivor to the Communion of Saints. Notice the variety of religious concerns represented in these examples. Our interest in The Church in the 21st Century project is therefore a natural extension of the role we can play.

An Inclusive Community
As Boston College Law School has grown in stature and quality, it has celebrated and benefited from a diverse population of students and faculty. You can tell by the names how much we have changed. In the class that celebrated its 50th reunion this fall we had Francis X. Bellotti, Francis Boyle, John Connors, Thomas Corrigan, Henry Crowley, John Curley, John Daly, Albert Devlin . . . . Here, by way of contrast, is a sample from my Constitutional Law class a year ago: Michael Carney, Dinesh Banani, Carla Garcia, Sachiko Higashiyama, Julianna Jamal, Nick Rosenberg . . . .We have grown into an institution that attracts students and faculty from 50 states and a host of foreign countries, with all the ethnic, religious, and social variety that such a mixture implies. This diversity is in tune with the charism of the Jesuits, an international order directed by a Dutch priest who was ordained in Beirut. It is also very "Catholic." Those with a classical education will recall that the word comes from a Greek root meaning "universal."

In welcoming members from so many cultures and faiths, we do not attempt to suppress differences or conduct our affairs in neutral, secular terms, as might be appropriate in public political life. On the contrary, we are particularly sensitive to the demands that faith makes on our kindred spirits, because we are a school begun by a religious minority. This is why our alumni and students find BC such a warm, welcoming, caring institution. Let me share with you an e-mail one of our students sent to the Dean for Students after the attacks on September 11:

I wanted to give a quick thank you for BC's sensitivity in giving all students the Jewish holidays off. In my entire educational life, it is quite ironic that the one Jesuit school I attend is the one that is most sensitive to a small minority of its student body. . . . Thanks again to you and the rest of the administration who made this decision. As I'm sure you can imagine, in light of the past week, I am aching to be with my family.

Faith and Good Works
The clergy sexual abuse crisis hurts because it shows a rift between belief and action; the Law School tries to connect them. Law schools have a special charge to cultivate the virtue of justice. It is incumbent on us to see that we practice, as well as preach, that virtue. Because we are an academic institution, our focus is heavily weighted to the intellectual side. We stress from the first day of first-year orientation the lawyer's ethical obligations. And we strongly encourage our students to incorporate a commitment to public service in their careers.

In the past two decades law schools have also included a strong dose of clinical education in their curricula. In the design of such programs we (like other Jesuit law schools) have lain particular stress on service to the poor and marginalized classes of society. Our Legal Assistance Bureau, Immigration Clinic, Criminal Defense Clinic, and Juvenile Rights Advocacy Project are more than just useful vehicles for teaching skills. They do the work of the beatitudes: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God."

The current crisis in the Church is an unhappy occasion for reviewing our role as a Catholic institution. But I think we are in a position to render a real service in this affair, because our concern for the welfare of the Church is coupled with those qualities that mark a great educational institution: a commitment to truth, a spirit of free inquiry, an inclusive community, and a love of justice that is personal and not just intellectual.


John H. Garvey