Listening and Responding to Abuse in the Church

Listening and Responding to Abuse in the Church

By: Catherine Mulroney

Leona Huggins remembers clearly why her parish priest stopped abusing her. “I got too old, too aware. He couldn’t control me,” says Huggins, who shared both her childhood experiences and her current work advocating to end clergy sexual abuse in a recent episode of Global News’ This is Why podcast.

When Huggins discovered years later that the man who abused her when she was 13 was now working with a youth group, she stepped forward with her story, the beginning of her activism to end clergy sexual abuse.

While the priest served 10 months on various abuse-related charges, he then returned to active ministry elsewhere.

Huggins, who lives in Vancouver, was the sole Canadian among the 12 abuse survivors offered a chance to address last month’s unprecedented Vatican summit on clergy sexual abuse. Now, she will be a key participant in a two-day event at the University of St. Michael’s College looking at the abuse crisis in the Catholic Church.

The Wounded Body of Christ: Listening and Responding to Abuse in the Church, which takes place Thursday, March 14 and Friday, March 15, will include input from legal, medical and pastoral experts. Most important, though, will be the voices of three survivors of clerical sexual abuse who will share their stories, as well as their advice on how to end the crisis.

The event begins with a keynote address Thursday evening by Dr. Brian Flanagan, associate professor of theology and religious studies at Virginia’s Marymount University. His talk is titled “Believing in a Sinful and Holy Church.”

The following day, Friday, March 15, will see four sets of talks, beginning with a conversation with survivors, including Ms. Huggins.

Sr. Nuala Kenny, O.C. M.D. F.R.C.P., of Dalhousie University in Halifax, will deliver a paper sharing insight she has gained as a physician in diagnosing and treating clerical sexual abuse, while Dr. Mary Ann Hinsdale, IHM, an associate professor of theology at Boston College, will address the links between clericalism and abuse.

A group discussion toward the end of the day will bring together the range of voices involved in addressing what Pope Francis has called “the pain and unbearable suffering” the scandals have caused. That discussion will be moderated by David Byrne, a doctoral student in the faculty whose work addresses ethical, spiritual, moral and practical issues in society’s—and the courts’—response to sex offenders.

The St. Mike’s conference comes as survivors and the broader church assess what did and did not come out of the Vatican conference, as well as what next steps are needed to end a crisis that has rocked the church to its core.

“The question of clerical sexual abuse is such a complex issue,” says Faculty Dean Dr. James Ginther. “We need to hear from the survivors because the onus is on us to become agents of change, creating a church that doesn’t allow any space for abuse. We need to ensure our ecclesiastical leaders can’t let this happen again.”

As survivor advocate Huggins told This is Why, the Vatican summit left her disappointed she didn’t see a more practical action plan come out of the meetings. The church is still “parsing” what abuse is, she says, adding that until it takes a “really good look at the rot within,” the church’s right to position itself as a  moral authority is threatened.

Leona Huggins stepped forward with her story in 1992, 15 years after her experience of abuse. While in Rome, she met a 22-year-old abuse survivor, evidence, she says, that offers of handbooks and talking points have not done enough to end the crime.

“I’d love to stop telling my story,” she says.


The Wounded Body of Christ: Listening and Responding to Abuse in the Church is free and open to the public. Please RSVP to


Dr. Flanagan’s keynote speech takes place Thursday, March 14 at 7 p.m. in Rm 100 of Alumni Hall, 121 St. Joseph St., Toronto.

The colloquium takes place Friday, March 15 from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. in Charbonnel Lounge, 81 S. Mary St.

Catherine Mulroney is the Faculty of Theology’s programs co-ordinator.