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Boston lay leader proposes a plan


One of the most frustrating aspects of the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic church has been the failure of the constituent elements of the church -- laity, hierarchy, priests and women and men in religious life -- to come together in structured dialogue to seek answers to the following question: What must the church do to understand the root causes of the sexual abuse crisis and to make sure that it never happens again?

I submit that it is the bishops -- not lay or clergy reform groups -- who must take the lead in bringing forth answers to this most critical question if the church is to recover and move forward with its essential mission in a way that is authentically Catholic.

Shortly after the March 2002 annual convocation of the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Boston, I attended a “listening session” at St. Ann’s Parish in Wayland, Mass. The west regional bishop attended the session, along with a large number of mostly lay Catholics from the 52 parishes throughout the west region, some priests and archdiocesan representatives. After presentations by archdiocesan representatives about what the archdiocese was doing in response to victims of sexual abuse and their families, all were welcomed to an “open microphone.” Many took advantage of the opportunity. Most were angry and frustrated, but underlying the emotion was a sincere -- and sensible -- desire for answers.

The regional bishop listened intently. He seemed absorbed by what he was hearing and noticeably affected by what people were saying to him. At one point, he asked a man who had just finished speaking: “What do you want us to do?” The man responded, “Bishop, I wish I could give you an answer, but I just don’t know.”

The regional bishop was Richard Lennon. On Dec. 13, Pope John Paul II appointed Lennon apostolic administrator of the Boston archdiocese following Cardinal Bernard F. Law’s resignation as archbishop. With that appointment, Lennon assumed the role as apostolic leader of 2.1 million Catholics in greater Boston, with full authority for church governance.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that Lennon faces a monumental task. With Law’s resignation after 18 years of heading up the archdiocese, the landscape of episcopal leadership has been radically altered.

The question Lennon asked at St. Ann’s Parish some months ago lingers.

How should the bishops govern the church? That central question will take much time and effort -- and a lot of prayer and discernment -- to answer. It is a question that must be asked in light of what we have learned from the crisis. Bishops, laity, priests and religious should lead the discussion and welcome input from all elements of the church. As answers emerge, bishops should remain open to new approaches, to “thinking outside the box.”

The laity can and must be at the front lines of this effort. But how should we do that in a manner that is consistent with the apostolic tradition of episcopal leadership that is at the core of church governance? This is a difficult question for many lay Catholics, and even priests, because this crisis has for most of us been the first and perhaps only time that we have witnessed an institutional breach of duty of such magnitude by those to whom we believe Christ entrusted the sacred duty of governing the church.

To Lennon’s question “What do you want us to do?” here is my answer:

Our new apostolic administrator should call a news conference and say something like this to all Catholics in the Boston archdiocese:

“As a result of the sexual abuse crisis, trust in the episcopal leadership of our church has been badly shaken. This trust is critical for the church to fulfill its mission, for it is Jesus Christ himself who empowered Peter and the apostles to establish and govern the church. Every bishop since Peter has shared this sacred responsibility by virtue of apostolic succession. This responsibility of episcopal governance is one that has served the church well for many centuries; it is a part of fundamental Catholic doctrine and Catholic tradition, and is not subject to change.

“When mistakes are made by those whom Christ has charged with governing the church, all of the members of the church suffer harm. It is only right and natural that Catholics who love and care for the church would want to understand the root causes for such mistakes and see to it that steps are taken to make sure that they do not happen again. Members of our local church -- especially those who are parents or guardians -- have a special interest in understanding how some priests came to abuse children, and why some bishops chose to respond to these issues in certain ways, some of which included not removing such priests from active pastoral ministry. Here in the Boston archdiocese, I am committed to making sure that these questions are openly discussed, and that we take the time that is necessary to learn from what has happened here, so that we can ensure that it never happens again.

“In recent months, I have listened to many voices within our local church. The bishops of the United States have made significant progress in ensuring that sexual abuse never happens again within our church, and that if it does, that it is dealt with in the most responsible and direct manner possible with the needs of our children and other potential victims as our first priority.

“But much more needs to be done, because, although most have not been harmed directly by specific acts of abuse, all Catholics have suffered from the harm those acts have done to the entire People of God.

“My first order of business will be to reestablish trust here in greater Boston, so that this archdiocese can move forward as one with the mission of the church.

“I call all Catholics to engage with me and other archdiocesan leaders in achieving a genuine understanding of what happened, and to be heard in respect to what should be done to ensure that it never happens again. That effort must and will involve open and honest dialogue, and the sooner that dialogue begins, the better off our local church will be.

“To underscore the importance of this effort, I am designating the years 2003 and 2004 as ‘Time for Understanding and Renewal’ in the Boston archdiocese. This year, we shall begin anew to rebuild trust in each other, work toward an authentic understanding of our shared Catholic identity and mission, and lay the foundation for the work we must do as committed Catholics in this archdiocese -- and as members of the universal Catholic church -- for years to come.

“To achieve these goals I am calling on leaders of our curial departments, seminaries, Catholic colleges and universities, Catholic foundations and associations, and various groups that have expressed a desire for reform within the church, to begin a systematic dialogue on the current state of the archdiocese; and to discuss specific ways that priests, lay people and bishops can work together to build a stronger local church that is faithful to our shared Catholic principles, values and traditions. We will follow up on this discussion with a series of concrete initiatives throughout the following year, to be reported on at the 2004 Archdiocesan Convocation, to ensure that this effort has a sufficient period of time to develop and come to fruition.

“The full participation of our 362 Catholic parishes will be needed in this effort.

“Lay Catholics must come to understand their central role in the life of the church, and how important it is for the future of the church’s mission that they become as well-informed as possible about the content of the faith and tradition that we all share.

“Parish priests must play an active role in this process as well. Priests must encourage parishioners to become involved in parish affairs and counsel them toward an authentically Catholic understanding of lay leadership. Priests who do not yet have pastoral councils should quickly form them in accordance with existing guidelines. Parish councils that currently exist should redouble their efforts by working closely with their pastors and administrators to develop plans for the spiritual development of all parishioners.

“Together with the vicar general, the regional bishops and the archdiocesan curial departments, I commit myself as apostolic administrator of this archdiocese to a more open and transparent leadership. All Catholics need to understand that ‘authority’ within the church is not about the exercise of power, but about God’s call to each of us to serve him and his people faithfully, each according to his or her special gifts, and each according to his or her unique role within the church.

“Along those lines, I will soon issue new draft guidelines for the archdiocesan pastoral council. During the next few months, I welcome written comments from all interested Catholics on these draft guidelines so that, before I make a final decision as to their implementation in the spring of 2003, I can have the benefit of a variety of views and comment. One thing that will be in the new guidelines: Beginning in the fall of 2003, meetings of the council will include a public session open to all interested persons -- I want to hear comments and viewpoints from a variety of voices within our local community as I consider matters of importance in our local church.

“A few words in closing: Pope John Paul II has referred to the Catholic laity as a ‘sleeping giant.’ As the giant awakens to face the challenges of the church in the 21st century, we must commit ourselves to working together, to better understand the spec-ial gifts that God has giv-en each one of us as well as the special responsibilities that each of us has within the church. It is our sacred -- and shared -- responsibility to ensure the preservation of Catholic values and traditions in the modern world, and to be open to a new spirit of evangelization, as one church.

“We have much work to do. Let us begin without further delay.”

Attorney David W. Zizik resides in Sherborn, Mass. He is vice chair of the Parish Pastoral Council at St. Theresa Parish, Sherborn, and chair of Parish Leadership Forum of the Boston archdiocese.

National Catholic Reporter, January 31, 2003