Officials at the University of Scranton and King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. have announced that buildings once honoring now-disgraced bishops will be renamed and the bishops’ honorary degrees will be revoked.
It’s part of the continuing fallout in the state and around the country from last week’s massive report on clergy sex abuse. As the full effect of the sweeping grand jury report comes into clearer view, many Catholic schools and universities feel like they are in the eye of the storm and are taking steps to separate themselves from the havoc that the report has spread.
And high schools are beginning to reexamine once-hallowed Catholic Church figures, too. In the Pittsburgh area, a school bearing the name of Cardinal Donald Wuerl is being renamed to have the church leader’s name erased after the report accused him of reassigning priests who allegedly abused children. It was a decision made at the request of Wuerl himself.
The University of Scranton was the first in Pennsylvania to react, deciding to remove the names of three bishops from buildings. University President Scott Pilarz wrote in a letter to faculty and students at the Jesuit school that the decision was made as a way of showing “sympathy for and solidarity with victims of sexual abuse in the Diocese of Scranton.
That means new building signage. Plaques will be taken down. Maps will be reprinted. And honorary degrees will be revoked from the three Scranton bishops — Jerome Hannan, James Timlin and J. Carroll McCormick — who are accused of assisting in the cover up of more than 1,000 minors at the hands of some 300 priests across the state.
The students and faculty milling about the sleepy campus in the Pocono Mountains on a recent visit seemed to all share the same view: it was the right choice for the the school taking an early stance on the Pennsylvania report that has reverberated around the world.
“I don’t think it’s being disrespectful to the church,” said Adam Pratt, a history professor at the University of Scranton. “What these men have done is beyond the pale. And it’s not the values that we teach here at the University of Scranton.”
Pratt said he’s encouraged the university was the first to confront the Pennsylvania attorney general’s grand jury report. Yet he hopes renaming the buildings is “part of a healing process and coming to a reckoning that I think is an important thing that we need to do as a community,” he said.
Jeff Welsh, also a historian at the University of Scranton, added that removing the names will make space for the university to honor people who have contributed positively to the church.
“We’re going to take away that recognition and recognize people instead who really have made a positive step forward for the Catholic Church. I think that’s great,” Welsh said. “I’m impressed the university took such a pro-active stance.”
Welsh noted that it was not accidental that a building once dedicated to a disgraced bishop will now be named after an Australian nun who herself blew the whistle on a priest who was abusing children.
Senior Jack Prendergast, who serves in student government at the University of Scranton, said having walked past the three buildings countless times, he never stopped to question to whom the structures were devoted.
“I never put much thought into it. If someone were to ask me, I would’ve said, ‘they’re probably prestigious and well-upheld people to have their names put on a building,” Prendergast said. “It’s good that people have shed the light on this.”
Laura Freedman, who will be a senior this year at the University of Scranton, said she was relieved to hear that the names of the accused bishops will be leaving campus.
“We’re just happy that we’re actually taking a stand on it and not just letting it slip under the rug kind of and trying to ignore it,” said Freedman, who is Catholic, like the majority of students at this Jesuit school.
Ignoring it is what professors here are strenuously trying to avoid, as faculty scrambles to assemble a response a week before fall semester begins.
Since the report was publicly released last week, professors have been racing to update the upcoming semester’s coursework and arrange 11th-hour meetings on how to teach the ugly findings of the nearly 900-page document that has battered the Catholic Church far beyond Pennsylvania.
“I’m rethinking how I’m going to start this semester just in light of what’s happening in the past two weeks,” Welsh said.
In the theology department, Professor Chris Haw says now with three notable bishops being symbolically expelled from campus, the report has acquired new urgency for his students.
“Our department has already started exchanging some emails about what we are going to do to, perhaps on day one, name this elephant in the room,” Haw said.
Haw hopes the school’s self-reflection does not end with new building names. He said holding public forums could be productive for members of the campus community who feel unresolved about the decision.
“In cases like this, some people want to become very defensive and maybe sort of trenchantly defending the church, when so many other people are saying, this is not the time for you to be defensive,” Haw said. “We need to be ventilating this big time right now.”
A spokesman for the Diocese of Scranton released a statement that did not take a position on the renamed buildings directly. Instead, the Diocese spokesman said the organization supports helping survivors of abuse and their families achieve healing.
The University of Scranton’s administration would not agree to interviews.
But in its letter to faculty and students, the school’s president said he hopes the decision will start the “long but hopeful process to rebuild trust and find peace.”