Dr. Michael Higgins to Speak at 'Trauma & Transformation' Conference

News Story: July 1, 2011
Dr. Michael Higgins will be a presenter at the 'Trauma and Transformation' conference
in Canada next October.

Michael W. Higgins, Ph.D., vice president for Mission and Catholic Identity at Sacred Heart University, will be a presenter at the conference “Trauma and Transformation, the Catholic Church and the Sexual Abuse Crisis” at McGill University on Oct. 14 and 15.

McGill’s Centre for Research on Religion is hosting the conference on the sexual abuse crisis within the Catholic Church. In his letter to the Irish Church, Benedict XVI stated that the sexual abuse crisis has damaged Catholic faith “to a degree that not even centuries of persecution succeeded in doing.” Dr. Higgins will join a blue-ribbon team of scholars and religious leaders who will bring their experience and expertise into dialogue on the crisis and challenge of the clerical abuse scandals.

Sexual abuse remains a deep-seated, but largely concealed, problem in society. For a variety of reasons the Catholic Church has emerged as the critical “case study” for the sexual abuse of minors and children within institutional settings. As this crisis unfolds, a wealth of data, as well as psychological, ethical, legal, historical and sociological analysis, has been generated. The focus of the McGill conference is to capture for the church, from a wide variety of perspectives, the lessons learned from this crisis and to identify the way to the future.

Dr. Higgins’ topic will be “The Media Narratives: Construction and Deconstruction.” He will explore the role of the media - investigatory, representative and magisterial – in relation to the abuse scandal, and the credibility of religious authority. His presentation also will profile and probe diverse political and editorial agendas related to the crisis.

The secular press, he said, in particular the Boston Globe in its investigation of the Archdiocese there at the turn of the 20th century as well as the Sunday Express in Newfoundland, which revealed the cases of abuse at the now-non-existent Mount Cashel Orphanage in the Archdiocese of St. John’s, is credited with uncovering the crisis and handling it fairly. Both investigative reportages led to the calls for public inquiry.

“The media drove the agenda for reforms, and the results in the end were good for the Church and for society,” said Dr. Higgins. But the media, he added, also “gets it wrong,” referring to the tabloid newspaper industry that sensationalized the crisis “milking the story for all it could get.”

Journalism on the whole, he said, treated the issue on the positive side, evidenced by the Vatican’s senior officials who now talk about the service provided by the press in bringing the crisis to light. Early on, he said, the Vatican’s first reaction was to “attack the messenger.” He cautioned, however, that “some in the media still take cheap shots, but that is not the majority.”

Another change, he said, is that now the religious press has taken on a role as one of the positive drivers in furthering the dialogue. In essence, Dr. Higgins said, “The secular press did its job.”

Dr. Higgins also will discuss his book, co-authored with Peter Kavanagh, entitled Suffer the Children Unto Me, which won first place in the Catholic Press Awards for 2011. The book is an open inquiry into the multi-dimensional reality of clerical sex abuse in Canada and abroad.

Dr. Higgins, a Canadian educator, writer and journalist, came to Sacred Heart in January 2010 as a visiting senior executive in residence, assisting the University in a variety of roles and teaching. Since being named vice president for Mission and Catholic Identity in June 2010, his responsibilities include the oversight of Presidential Seminars on the Catholic Intellectual Tradition, Faculty Conversations, In Vino Veritas, chaplaincy and University outreach. 

Prior to coming to Sacred Heart, Dr. Higgins was president and vice chancellor of St. Thomas University in Fredericton, New Brunswick, where he was also a professor of English and Religious Studies. From 1999 to 2006, he was president St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario, and he has held numerous appointments at other Canadian colleges and universities.

Dr. Higgins is an author, columnist, a radio documentary maker, a television commentator on Vatican affairs, and a regular contributor to Commonweal magazine. He was the chief adviser for the widely acclaimed TV series, Sir Peter Ustinov’s “Inside the Vatican.” He is the recipient of many awards and honors and is working on a biography of the late Father Henri J.M. Nouwen.

For more information about the conference, visit http://traumaandtransformation.org.