Students are pushing for expediency and greater input into a newly formed working group evaluating honorary degrees, including those held by cardinals implicated in the sexual abuse crisis, as it met the first time this week.
The launch of the working group comes after student concerns about honorary degrees held by the cardinals. On Nov. 2, Georgetown University Vice President Joseph Ferrara informed five students from Catholic-affiliated student groups that they would be able to voice their concerns to the working group, according to Grace Laria (SFS ’19), who was present at the meeting. Laria co-authored a petition in September urging the honorary degree revocation of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and Cardinal Donald Wuerl. (Full disclosure: Laria is a former member of The Hoya’s editorial board.)
However, students said the university fails to adequately communicate the status of the honorary degrees to students. In the meeting with Ferrara, students also asked for students to be placed on the working group.
The working group is set to meet this week, according to university spokesperson Matt Hill.
The same five students from Catholic-affiliated student groups met with Ferrara and Vice President for Mission and Ministry Fr. Mark Bosco, S.J., on Oct. 17.
Ferrara informed the students of the creation of an ad hoc working group at the board of directors’ standard fall meeting to examine the issue of honorary degrees broadly and to reconsider those given to McCarrick and Wuerl.
Catholic retreat leader Julie Bevilacqua (COL ’19) was one of five students in the meeting and urged for greater transparency from the university.
“We wanted more transparency from the university; we wanted more information about what was happening — why action hadn’t been taken yet — just kind of what was going [on] administratively, because I think that hasn’t been made clear to the student body,” Bevilacqua said in an interview with The Hoya.
The four-person working group composed of members of the board of directors in October was launched in response to ongoing calls to revoke the honorary degrees of McCarrick and Wuerl, both former archbishops of Washington, D.C., to examine honorary degrees in general.
McCarrick was suspended from public ministry in June after the Archdiocese of New York deemed an allegation of sexual abuse from a teenage altar boy “credible,” resulting in additional allegations of sexual abuse and disclosures of settlements with adult accusers. McCarrick resigned from the College of Cardinals in July.
Wuerl was implicated in misconduct after a Pennsylvania grand jury report in August said he mishandled accusations of sexual abuse as bishop of the Diocese of Pittsburgh. Wuerl resigned as Archbishop of Washington on Oct. 12 but has defended his record on protecting survivors of sexual abuse. Wuerl remains in the College of Cardinals and still holds his position as the interim apostolic administrator of the District.
A university spokesperson confirmed the working group is composed of four members but did not elaborate further.
“The working group, comprised of four members of the Board of Directors, will be meeting this week to consider all aspects of the honorary degree process,” university spokesperson Matt Hill wrote in an email to The Hoya. “Students who have been engaged on the topic of honorary degrees will be invited to join the working group for a discussion. After conferring, the working group will make recommendations to the board’s executive committee.”
The effort to revoke the degrees began as early as August, when Catholic Women at Georgetown President Erica Lizza (COL ’19) contacted the office of University President John J. DeGioia to request that the university revoke McCarrick’s degree amid allegations. (Full disclosure: Lizza is a current member of The Hoya’s editorial board.)
In September, Austin Rose (COL ’18, LAW ’21), Max Rosner (COL ’18), Tomás Álvarez Belón (SFS ’18) and Laria shared a petition asking the university to call for Wuerl’s resignation and revoke McCarrick’s and Wuerl’s honorary degrees. McCarrick received an honorary degree from the university in 2014 and Wuerl received a degree in 2015. The petition, which has now garnered over 1,500 signatures, was delivered to DeGioia’s office Sept. 14.
In a meeting about the petition with Ferrara later that month, the students who crafted the petition reiterated the demands and spoke about the personal importance of the issue to them, according to interviews with The Hoya with students who attended.
Georgetown University has a responsibility as a Catholic institution to be a leader in protecting survivors of sexual abuse, Bevilacqua said.
“I think for as much conversation and dialogues we have about this crisis in the Catholic Church, I’m still aware in the back of my mind that action needs to be taken for us to move forward,” Bevilacqua said. “Because I think before we’re able to take that step, it’s going to be an obstacle to the type of healing we need in the community.”
The Catholic University of America revoked its honorary degree to McCarrick in late July. It was the first time CUA has ever revoked an honorary degree.
“The entire Catholic University community acknowledges the tragedy of sexual abuse at the hands of clergy, and the deep and lasting pain and suffering of survivors,” CUA said in a statement.
CUA has not revoked Wuerl’s honorary degree, and he remains chancellor of CUA, according to The Tower, CUA’s independent student newspaper.
Notre Dame University decided against revoking the honorary degree granted to McCarrick, saying it would wait for the conclusion of the canonical trial by the Vatican. The decision was consistent with the university’s tradition of waiting for the conclusion of trials before deciding whether to withdraw an honorary degree, according to the university.
“While the allegations in this case are most grave, as they were in the case of Bill Cosby, we believe it respects not only the rights of those involved but also the adjudicatory process itself to allow that process to reach a conclusion before taking action,” the university said in a statement.
Bevilacqua described Wuerl’s and McCarrick’s honorary degrees as “an obstacle to the type of healing we need” to move forward on the sexual abuse scandal that is roiling the Catholic community.
“Because of my engagement, because I know what this community has meant to me, I want to see it be better and improve and live out all the things it says to live out,” Bevilacqua said. “I think when you love something, you want it to be better.”
This post has been updated at 6:26 p.m. on Nov. 11 to reflect Austin Rose’s (COL ’18, LAW ’21) role in the creation of a petition to revoke McCarrick and Wuerl’s honorary degrees.