Countering bullying with a Catholic response

By Becky Aubut, Anchor Staff

WORCESTER, Mass. — As the third of eight sons, Kevin Dowd decided to break away from following in his father’s police work footsteps and carve out his own niche.

“One of our cornerstones growing up was our faith community; my parents were really interested in making sure we understood our faith and participated in the traditions of our faith. Time was delineated by the seasons of the Church,” said Dowd, who was involved in the youth group at St. Bernard’s Parish in Worcester, and taught fifth-grade Faith Formation classes while in high school. 

It wasn’t until he spent four years as a pre-med major at Harvard University that he finally realized what his true calling in life would be: “I still wanted to help people, as somebody who wanted to bring healing to the world, I recognized that medicine wasn’t the root that I was called to as a vocation,” said Dowd. “I felt a calling to teach.”

Dowd graduated from Harvard University with a bachelor’s degree in history, a master’s in education from the Institute of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry at Boston College, and is currently a doctoral student in theology and education at Boston College.

What eventually brought bullying to his attention academically and professionally was the year of 2010.

“By that point I was beginning a doctoral program at Boston College, and in the early stages of my doctoral work I recognized — and I think everybody recognized — that 2010 was a terrible year in the U.S. for youth suicides related to bullying,” said Dowd. “In the beginning of the year we had Phoebe Prince and at the end of the year we had Tyler Clementi.”

Prince was taunted and bullied for several weeks at South Hadley High School in South Hadley, ultimately hanging herself on Jan. 14, 2010 at the age of 15 in the stairwell leading to the second floor of the family apartment. Clementi was an 18-year-old student at Rutgers University in New Jersey, who jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge on Sept. 22, 2010 after two classmates used a webcam to view Clementi kissing another man without his knowledge, and one classmate — his own roommate — posting what he saw on Twitter. 

“There were suicides before Phoebe and after Tyler and a lot in between, but those were bookends in the public eye,” recalled Dowd. “By some estimates there were 36 or 37 suicides that year, and it was bad enough that President Obama spoke about it publicly to the nation about bullying. He brought it the national attention and that’s really when it caught my attention.”

As a Religious Educator, Dowd began to wonder how a whole year of national attention to raising awareness to youth bullying and suicides didn’t create a response from the Catholic Church: “I didn’t hear voices from my own Church speaking out against it or giving guidance. I wanted the Church to do more and I started to look into what are we doing as a faith community?”

The answer, said Dowd, was very little.

“In the schools it may be different,” said Dowd of how secular and Catholic schools handle bullying. “We still have this mindset that bullying is a school problem, and the schools do more but as a larger faith community.”

There are resources online for bullying, but to view bullying from a religious standpoint, Dowd recommended the book “Bullying, a Spiritual Crisis,” by Dr. Ron Cram, which was done in a scholarly way from a Christian perspective.

“One of the claims he makes is that the Church, for the most part, just looks the other way,” said Dowd. “We have this serious, everyday violence affecting millions of young people and for the most part the Church just looks the other way. I don’t think it’s intentional, we’re just not used to thinking of bullying as a moral issue and that it’s something the Church needs to address consciously and intentionally.”

Dowd has taken to spreading the message through speaking engagements in parishes and other religious institutions, and for the most part those listening have been receptive: “People are very happy to have somebody speaking about bullying,” said Dowd. “The kids hear this in assemblies in school and it’s become part of our public awareness, so I find that people are happy to have somebody addressing this issue from a safe perspective.”

There is still a minority who feel that this isn’t a faith issue. Dowd said, “I think it’s that attitude that we need to reassess. We’re looking at an issue that is a Pro-Life issue, it’s about human dignity; it’s about human value and worth, and how we treat one another. This is definitely a Faith Formation issue.”

Dowd said the first step is to frame bullying in a way that people will take it seriously and make it an important issue and not a rite of passage as a youth. 

“One of the things that people resist, and I heard this not often in Church groups but in the larger public, you’ll hear people say that ‘kids need to learn how to be strong and it will give them a thick skin’ [or] ‘I think these anti-bullying programs are actually making kids weak,’” said Dowd. “The problem is that they’re not talking about real bullying, just the garden-variety conflicts. Bullying is a very specific form of violence; you can’t just tell somebody to toughen up.”

The Catholic Church and its leaders can be a “sanctuary” and a “safe place” for students to share. It was on a retreat when a student shared his story with Dowd through a poem of being bullied. The 15-year-old young man was using Imitatio Christi (be like Christ) in his approach to the bullying, so as things were done to him the youth wouldn’t fight back because he was trying to be like Jesus.

Dowd said, “It was almost heroic. He was just trying to be a good Christian but all this was building up inside of him and he became suicidal. He may even have lashed out in violence if he hadn’t been able to talk to someone. We, as Religious Educators and community, we need to be careful when helping young people and help them understand there is a time to be able to speak out and defend yourself.”

We’re not required to play the martyr, said Dowd, even Jesus got angry at Peter; “We forget the full humanity of Christ and we need to incorporate that into our Spirituality and recognize that we can be faithful followers of Christ and still be angry and stand up for ourselves.”

And while it’s important for the person being bullied to not feel alone, the person doing the bullying is often overlooked as an individual who could be helped. To reach out to the one doing the bullying and go beyond the punishment that is often meted out once the bullying is recognized, can help put that bully back on the right track.

“Bullying is always a cry for a relationship,” said Dowd. “The bully is trying to have a normal relationship but does it in a way that is destructive and making things worse for him or herself. 

“I think part of the plan for the religious community for a bully is to help nurture healthy relationships. That may not be something [the bully] has had before, even in their own home, and it’s so important. We need to stand by and not give up on the bully and let them know that we care about them as well. We need to let them know that they’re not bad people. They may have done something bad, but we recognize that they’re essentially good. It is possible to start over, say you’re sorry and begin again. I think that many kids don’t often feel [that way], and that they’re pigeonholed into this role, and that they’re forever branded as the bully — and I think that it’s something that we can do differently. Challenge them to be the best versions of themselves.”

Dowd offers educators eight points as a guide — the first being to “teach and preach” about bullying, and that bullying should show up as a regular part in Religious Education while parents hear it from the pulpit. The second point should be to “model” it and do an examination of conscience, and ask ourselves if we are being bullies in our own community or are we modeling a non-bully stance?

The third point is communication, and having “fragments” of information floating around does no one any good, but good communication can assemble the pieces together — talking to parents, engaging students, are all things worth examining. The fourth point is counsel, to go beyond mandatory reporting and work as a mentor. 

The fifth point is to advocate, and that as a Church community the separation of church and state is not healthy when a religious voice should be part of the public forum. The sixth point is being organized because it’s easy for bullying to drop off the radar until something happens to bring it back to the forefront; the only way to stay on track is to have teams constantly reviewing the situation, like parent-teacher organizations that can implement the anti-bullying programs.

The seventh point is providing a sanctuary-type environment like youth groups, sports and retreats to help provide a safe place for youth to turn to and break the silence. The eighth point is prayer — public and private — and create specific prayer service that can be done from the pulpit or in youth groups because “everything should be rooted in prayer,” said Dowd.

You need to have a team of stake-holders like parents, teachers, students, community members to work together — the larger the community, the better, said Dowd, because “what I’ve seen in the research that if [bullying] is treated as just a school problem, it’s not terribly effective. The bully goes beyond the school, especially in the cyber world, and the best approaches seem to be a ‘whole community’ approach.”

For those who would like to contact Dowd to come and speak at their parish, he can be reached at dowdk@bc.edu or at 774-823-0664.

© 2017 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing  †  Fall River, Massachusetts