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Speaking softly, Canisius leader Hurley makes loud impact in Catholic dialogue

John Hurley spent three evenings in mid-August sitting on his back porch, reading through the Pennsylvania grand jury report on sex abuse in the Catholic church. He read about young victims who told their parents about the abuse. He read about parents who called their children liars, and who sometimes beat them. Hurley, who is the president of Canisius College, a Jesuit institution, thought about his own mother. In the same circumstance, she would have “flown right into action” to right the wrong, he said later.

Then Hurley did what he has become increasingly likely to do: He spoke out. In an official statement on Canisius letterhead, he called for women to have a stronger role in the church.

“Could anyone imagine women being in charge of matters like this and not doing everything possible to protect the children?” Hurley wrote.

He added: “It is clear that the path forward for the Church must include women in real, significant and substantial positions of leadership.”

That’s not all Hurley said — the statement was three strongly worded pages — but it’s the message that stuck: Want to fix this mess in the Catholic church where, in Hurley's words, “you have all men judging the actions of men"?

Here’s a start: Empower women.

Hurley spoke out again this fall on another hot-button Catholic issue: The church’s treatment of LGBTQ people. In November, the national media seized on a story about a Canisius sophomore, Emily Scheck, who said her parents cut her off financially after they learned she is gay. Emily’s roommate started a GoFundMe page to help raise money to keep her in school, and as the story spread, people donated more than $100,000.For the college, the situation was delicate: Canisius officials wanted to protect Scheck’s privacy while helping her deal with a deeply personal situation. The NCAA got involved too; Scheck runs cross-country and track, and the donations could have affected her student-athlete status. (The NCAA ultimately decided Emily could keep her student-athlete status and the money.)

The college’s communications staff was receiving questions from journalists around the country, including this one from an ABC News producer: “I was also wondering what is the school’s response to critics who find it controversial or contradictory for a Catholic college to continue to support a lesbian athlete.”

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, Hurley pondered whether to publicly and broadly address Scheck's situation. He consulted with a friend, the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author whose most recent book, “Building a Bridge,” explores the relationship between the Catholic church and the LGBTQ community.

Canisius College holds its graduation ceremonies at the Koessler Athletic Center, Saturday, May 19, 2018. President John Hurley addresses the graduates near the end of the ceremony. (Sharon Cantillon/News file photo)

Martin urged him to do it, and Hurley took the advice. He crafted an email with the subject line “Standing in Solidarity” and sent it to the entire Canisius community. Hurley shared the ABC producer’s question, and his answer: "It is precisely because we are Catholic and Jesuit that we will continue to stand in solidarity with all of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters and treat them with respect, compassion and sensitivity.”

Hurley’s email reinforced Canisius’ support of a student, and it also sent his message on what the Catholic church is — and is not.

“This is an opportunity to talk to the Canisius campus and say, ‘This is what we stand for,’ ” Hurley told the News in an interview earlier this month. “It’s an opportunity to teach people that the Catholic church is not this big, bad monster that’s always saying no, scolding people.”

The role of women and the relationship between the church and LGBTQ people are not common issues for a Catholic college president to champion. But Hurley, who has been president of Canisius for eight years, is using his office to lead in a way that sets him apart. At a time when the Diocese of Buffalo is wrapped in controversy over its handling of abuse allegations against priests, Hurley — as the lay leader of a large Catholic institution — is speaking out on issues that have made people question their Catholic faith.

After making his statements, Hurley received dozens of emails and messages, some of which he shared with the News. One of those came from Sr. Margaret Carney, president emeritus of St. Bonaventure University. She wrote Hurley after he advocated for a stronger role for women, and reinforced his belief that Catholic colleges and universities provide opportunity for strong lay leadership. She thanked him for speaking out.

“Few of our presidents need another task and burden,” Carney wrote. “But perhaps this burden is not a choice. Thanks for being willing to lift it on your own shoulders.”

Prominent local Catholics demand reforms to Buffalo Diocese

Long a leader

Hurley, 61, is a quiet leader. He dresses in suits and ties, speaks softly and measures his words. He is more consensus-builder than firebrand, and has long been that way.

Robert Scott, the longtime and recently retired president of St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute, first met him when Hurley was a St. Joe’s sophomore in 1971. Scott, who has stayed in touch with Hurley since then, remembers him as a kid with a natural ability to both connect and be decisive.

“He was a very bright kid, and he was one of those kids who was able to maneuver between different groups,” Scott said. “He didn’t offend anyone, whether it was the jock group or the very-smart group or the kids-that-goofed-around group, or whatever it was. John was equally at home with all of them.”

Hurley graduated from St. Joe’s in 1974 and enrolled at Canisius College, where he studied English and history and, he recalled, became deeply imbued with the Jesuit belief that “there can be no service of faith without the promotion of justice.”

Hurley carried that belief with him to Notre Dame, where he earned his law degree and met his wife of 36 years, Maureen. “He has strong convictions, which is what originally attracted me to him as a person,” said Maureen Hurley, who went on to a long career as a top executive at the Buffalo frozen-food company Rich Products Corp. “He’s been sensitive over the years, in the roles he’s been in, that he has to make sure that his speaking out isn’t going to alienate people. But certainly he’s not been afraid to take the tough stands.”

That has played out at every step of Hurley’s career: As a corporate bankruptcy attorney with the Buffalo firm Phillips Lytle in the 1980s and early 1990s, he also worked on housing discrimination issues. As a Canisius vice president in the early 2000s, he took sometimes difficult stands, including reinforcing Canisius' decision to allow then-Sen. Hillary Clinton to speak on campus despite pushback from the diocesan hierarchy because of Clinton’s pro-choice stance.

Hurley became president of Canisius in 2010 and has used what he calls “the megaphone” of his office to speak out on a variety of issues. A packet of examples he provided to the News includes speeches, statements and public emails on global poverty, hate speech, violence in Nicaragua, national anthem protests, and Canisius’ supporter for students who came to the United States illegally as minors, and thus qualify as "dreamers."

The response isn't uniformly positive. In 2011, for example, Canisius hosted a talk by "Milk" screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, who spoke about the experience of being a young gay male in Hollywood. Opponents launched a digital campaign against Canisius and Hurley, who received more than 15,000 emails protesting the event. A small number of those were from Canisius alumni; Hurley responded by telling them the school has LGTBQ students and "our obligation is to create an environment where there is respect, compassion and understanding."

Martin, the author, calls Hurley "one of the most important lay leaders in the entire state if not the country." He added, "And with bishops and clergy losing trust by the day it's only natural that lay men and women should step up to assume more leadership roles in the church."

Canisius student Taylor Rabadi receives her diploma from Canisius President John Hurley during the College of Arts and Sciences commencement in May 2018. (Sharon Cantillon/News file photo)

Chance to be a voice

Hurley is speaking out for reasons rooted in morals and faith, and also because at a time when people are deeply questioning the Catholic church, he wants to reinforce where Canisius stands. Bad news about the church makes it more difficult to market Catholic-affiliated institutions, and Canisius – like many private institutions – is struggling already. From 2014 to today, the college's combined undergraduate and graduate enrollment dropped from 4,181 to 3,244 students. The college has whittled expenses over the last several years by cutting administrative and staff positions and offering faculty buyouts.

New York's Excelsior program, which provides tuition-free enrollment at state schools for students from families earning less than $125,000, has created more competition in recent years. For 2018-19 school year, Canisius dropped its tuition to $27,000 – down 23 percent from nearly $35,000 – in an effort to remain competitive.

Hurley does not directly connect his outspokenness on Catholic-related issues with Canisius' financial and enrollment challenges. But it's clear that, as the leader of Canisius, it is wise for him to make sure the public knows where his institution stands.

“I wouldn’t say this is a big business calculation, but I think it relates to the mission of the school,” Hurley said. “So if your mission is going to mean anything to you, you have to assert it in the positive and identify what you stand for and what you’re going for in the world.”

He believes, too, that an institution like Canisius can provide a “moral voice for the church. “Some of these scandals have diminished that ability of the church,” said Hurley, who with his wife Maureen, is part of a group of nine lay people in Buffalo who have formed a group called The Movement to Restore Trust. “So yeah, there’s a chance for us to be more of a voice on some of these issues.”

Lee Wortham, the chair of Canisius’ board of trustees, told the News that Hurley has his and the board’s full support. “On every count, he is stepping out and exhibiting great leadership skills,” Wortham said. “He’s a collaborator, too. He’s seeking to get people engaged in discussion, conversation, and working to build this pathway forward for our diocese.”

Notably, Hurley is not among the Buffalo-area leaders who have called for the resignation of Bishop Richard J. Malone amid criticism over the Diocese of Buffalo’s handling of abuse allegations against priests. “I didn’t feel like I should be one of the people out there calling for the bishop’s resignation,” Hurley said, “because then the story became more about, ‘Is the bishop going to resign or not?’ versus ‘What does the church have to do to solve this problem?’ ”

The News asked Malone for his reaction to Hurley’s call for a greater role for women. In written responses, the bishop agreed with Hurley’s point that women can and should play a strong role in the church. He pointed out several examples of women in high-level administrative positions in the diocese, and said he would like to see a change in the Vatican’s rules to allow laity — “especially women,” Malone said — to join the College of Cardinals

“It is very necessary that there be a higher profile and stronger voice of women in church decision-making,” Malone said. “Some steps have been taken, but there is much more progress to be made.”

Malone also endorsed the work of Hurley and others in the Restore Trust initiative, and added, “In addition, one of the best things John Hurley can do is to ensure that the Catholic identity and mission of Canisius College will remain strong going forward.”

Speaking out is one of Hurley’s strategies for accomplishing that. But how does he measure the success of his message? By how others speak in response to his statements.

“Every place I go, people talk about them,” Hurley said. “That’s how I gauge it.”

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