Jesuit Panel Discusses Sexual Assault at Boston College

by Margaret Antonio


On March 18, four Jesuits sat down before a lecture hall of BC students for a panel reflecting on sexual assault at Boston College.  The event was co-sponsored by Bystander Intervention Education and the Undergraduate Government of Boston College (UGBC).  Regine Jean-Charles, assistant professor of French, who has taught classes and published works on rape representation, sexual violence, women’s studies, and gender inequality, moderated the panel.

For Haley Sullivan, A&S ’15, a bystander trainer and co-organizer of the event, engaging Jesuits in the discussion on sexual assault was an effort to broaden the dialogue and break a stereotype. “After having conversations with so many students here, I started to find that there is a common misconception across campus that members of the Jesuit community will not discuss issues we consider to be controversial.”


The all-Jesuit panel surprised many as it adds a new dimension to the dialogue on sexual assault at Boston College and at universities in general. Jesuit seminarian, Roy Charles, S.J. said he hoped that their presence in the dialogue could help “de-mystify what it means to be Jesuit, how we think as Jesuits, how we think about this issue in particular.”


According to the White House task force on sexual assault, launched by President Obama in April 2014, an estimated one in every five women on college campuses has been sexually assaulted during her lifetime. Panelist Fr. James Keenan, S.J., Canisius Professor and Director of the Jesuit Institute pointed out that given the prevalence of the issue, it’s surprising how little action and discussion there is on it.


“If all of a sudden we were to find out that one out of five had Ebola, we’d be talking about that in class,” Fr. Keenan said. “If we found out that one in five had HIV/AIDS, we’d be talking about that in class. Why is it that sexual assault cannot come into the classroom?” Fr. Keenan teaches, speaks and writes prolifically on issues of health ethics, the human body, and moral theology.


Panelists emphasized the need to make the dialogue on sexual assault an integral part of university life by engaging students and professors as well as university leaders and Jesuits. Seminarian, Christopher Ryan, S.J., pointed out that sexual assault can often be seen as something that shouldn’t be openly addressed. On the contrary, Ryan suggested, it’s just the opposite. “I see this as a social justice issue, which is close to the heart of Jesuit education. I see this as an area of cura personalis, caring for the whole person. This isn’t just an academic institution. We do care…this is something that should reach the very top.”


One student asked the panel what Jesuits could do to address sexual assault. Fr. Enman suggested that Jesuits start offering Mass during the month of October (Domestic Violence Month) specifically for victims of sexual assault and to also preach about it to raise awareness and unite spiritually in prayer.


Fr. Keenan added that inviting Jesuits to panels is also an excellent way to give Jesuits the opportunity to participate in dialogues on issues like sexual assault and to help such dialogues extend throughout their Jesuit communities. “All of our communities will be asking us how [the panel] went. It’s important to invite Jesuits to these activities more specifically and more directly.”


During the Q&A portion of the panel, students were also interested in what the Catholic Church was doing to better the problem of sexual assault. One student asked if the Church was in fact contributing to aggression towards women by its apparent opposition towards the “feminization” of the Church.  Contrary to popular belief, panelists pointed out that the Church itself has always been referred to as feminine with the title, “Mother Church.” Furthermore, women have always held an important place in the history of the Church, from standing alongside Christ during the crucifixion to being the first at the tomb upon his resurrection. Even in modern times, women have been at the forefront as leaders in establishing Catholic hospitals and schools throughout the United States. Yet, as Fr. Keenan pointed out, although women have had prominent roles in the institutional life of the Church, there is still work to be done in bringing women “to the table,” advising and contributing in decisions made by the Pope.


Overall, the event added a revolutionary dimension to the dialogue on sexual assault, encouraging its extension beyond non-academic student life and into classrooms, up to university leaders, and even throughout the Jesuit community at Boston College.


“It was an amazing event and I am excited to think that it will not be the last of its kind,” said Matt Hugo, A&S ’16. “The Jesuits not only were excited to be a part of the panel, but expressed interest in continuing these conversations with students. The event also sets a precedent for better communication in the future between students and Jesuits on hot-button issues on campus.”


One of Bystander Intervention and UGBC’s goals in hosting the event was to increase acknowledgement of sexual assault not only as a nation-wide problem, but also as a problem that also affects Boston College as a university and a community. “[The Jesuits’] participation not only legitimizes this cause by recognizing that sexual violence does, in fact, occur on this campus, but it also validates survivors' experiences,” said Haley Sullivan. “Hopefully, it fosters a more supportive environment where students, faculty, clergy, and administrators can discuss sexual assault more comfortably and transparently.”

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