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New groups push for change


It was impossible to avoid the humor, despite the serious discussion, when about 400 Catholics, members of two lay organizations that have formed in the wake of the sex abuse scandal here, gathered to discuss reforms they would like to see in the church.

They met, after all, on Patriot’s Day, April 15, a state holiday recalling the American Revolution, in the western suburbs of revolutionary Boston. But this time the “shot heard round the church” may well have been set off with Power Point and the Internet.

The gathering at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Wellesley was the weekly meeting of the Voice of the Faithful, a group that describes itself as “formed in response to the crisis in the archdiocese and to the broader difficulties afflicting the Catholic church throughout the world.” The organization’s mission statement reads: “To provide a prayerful voice, attentive to the Spirit, through which the faithful can actively participate in the governance and guidance of the Catholic church.”

Voice of the Faithful seeks to aid the growth of Catholics “by providing a voice for the people of the church,” said Jim Muller of St. John the Evangelist, who serves as chairman.

Voice of the Faithful is one of two lay groups that have sprung up in the Boston area in recent months in response to the ongoing clergy sex abuse crisis. The other is Coalition of Concerned Catholics, which has been the more public of the two, leading public prayer services and protests, witnessing and standing in solidarity with victims of clergy sex abuse. The coalition describes itself as “committed to helping victims of sexual abuse within our church receive justice and mercy and helping to renew a church that hears the voices of all its people.” There is significant overlap in the membership of the two organizations.

As people organized, the saga continued to develop new chapters.

On April 17, it was learned that additional documents relating to sex abuse cases in Boston would be released to the press and that Boston Cardinal Bernard Law would be required to testify June 5 in a videotaped deposition.

An unexpected twist occurred earlier, when Law released to the press April 12 the contents of a two-page letter addressed to diocesan clergy. The letter made it clear the cardinal intends to remain at the helm of the nation’s fourth largest archdiocese.

Secretly in Rome

Later it was announced that Pope John Paul II had summoned all the U.S. cardinals to Rome to discuss the scandal. Finally, it was revealed that Law had been to Rome secretly the week before to meet with the pope and to discuss the possibility of resigning, an option that the pope reportedly turned down.

Addressing a standing-room-only crowd in a parish meeting room, Muller said Voice of the Faithful’s goal is to build as broad a base of consensus as possible so that all voices among the faithful, from traditionalist to liberal, from conservative to progressive, can be heard.

Bounding with optimism, Muller listed what he sees as signs the movement is growing. “There have been more than 5,000 visits to our Web site,” he said, “with 63,000 pages turned.” Also, he said, “More than 800 people have left e-mail messages, and more than 100 people joined in a 12-hour period.” Muller told the gathering that the organization has heard from people in 18 nations, including European groups that want to attend the group’s July 20 congress scheduled for Boston’s Hynes Convention Center.

Voice of the Faithful also plans a Mass of healing, scheduled for 7:30 p.m. April 26 at St. John’s. The organization is encouraging other parishes to hold similar kinds of liturgies or prayer services.

Also addressing the gathering, the largest to date since the group formed nearly two months ago, Mary Scanlon Calcaterra, another St. John’s parishioner, emphasized the organization’s goals: “One, to support survivors of abuse. Two, support priests of integrity. Three, shape structural change within church.”

Before addressing the main point of the evening’s agenda -- a proposed letter and press statement calling for Law to resign -- Muller set a broad context for the discussion. “We know that the pedophilia scandal is not limited to Boston,” he said. “It’s in Dallas; it’s in Chicago -- in any big city. It’s been in Ireland and Australia.”

But Muller said the problem in other places has been “addressed narrowly,” with quick-fix solutions and rationalizations.

“Boston should not let that happen. The problem here is a symptom of a disease,” said Muller, a cardiologist. “The underlying disease is absolute power. The people of Boston know how to deal with absolute power.”

That remark, an obvious reference to the start of the American Revolution, not far from Wellesley in the towns of Lexington and Concord, drew spirited applause.

‘Donation without representation’

Muller also drew applause when he made another Revolutionary War comparison. Like the colonials who had taxation without representation, “We have donation without representation, and we have to change that,” he said.

Muller, along with Voice press spokesman Jim Post, presented for discussion a “consensus document,” a draft letter and news release, calling for a number of church reforms and the resignation of Law. (See sidebar for full text of the draft document.) Before opening up the meeting to attendees, Muller defined consensus: Everybody present at the meeting who supports the mission statement of the organization must be willing to “tolerate” the document’s contents. “You don’t have to like it,” he said, but “all must be willing to go forward with it.”

The document was discussed for more than an hour and an overwhelming majority agreed with the letter. Still, a small but significant minority was not comfortable with calling for the cardinal’s resignation.

Some people expressed concern about an overemphasis on the cardinal as the problem. One man said, “The problem is not the cardinal but goes beyond the cardinal to the culture of the church.” He added, “The cardinal is not the ogre the press makes him out to be.” Another person urged the group “to take the high road,” away from calling for a resignation. Yet another person suggested that the Spirit would not be “interested in politics or power; rather witness, redemption and reconciliation -- not personalities.”

Attempting compromise

But the vast majority wanted Law to go. “Cardinal Law is lasting longer than the chairman of Enron,” one person said. Another person urged a timely release of a press statement before the U.S. cardinals meet with Vatican officials in Rome: “This is when we want our message to be in Rome in time.” Yet another said, “We don’t want to re-victimize -- by delaying -- those who were abused and who still see that man in office.”

Both Muller and Post attempted various changes of language and other compromises, but it became apparent that about a dozen people could not tolerate either the call for or the language regarding Law’s resignation.

It was a New England town hall tradition, a suggestion by Maura O’Brien, a Wellesley selectwoman with a longstanding record of public leadership, that brought the discussion to a close. She convinced the group to poll members in attendance to measure the “sense of the meeting.” The final vote counted revealed 219, voting yes, with nine voting no and five abstentions.

Muller explained the vote “expresses an overwhelming sense that people favored the document and the call for Cardinal Law to resign. But because of the ground rules, the document was not adopted as a matter of policy out of respect for the views of the minority.”

Throughout the week, the local media buzzed with speculation that Law’s resignation was imminent. For more and more Catholics, the cardinal’s insistence on remaining in office only exacerbates the crisis.

‘Inadequate record-keeping’

“My desire to is to serve this archdiocese and the whole church with every fiber of my being. This I will continue to do as long as God gives me the opportunity,” Law wrote to priests.

The cardinal wrote that the case of Fr. Paul Shanley, accused of sexual abuse by many victims, “is particularly troubling for us.” He added, “For me personally it has brought home with painful clarity how inadequate our record-keeping has been. A continual institutional memory concerning allegations and cases of abuse of children was lacking. Trying to learn from the handling of this and other cases, I am committed to ensure that our records are kept in a way that those who deal with clergy personnel in the future will have the benefit of a full, accurate and easily accessible institutional memory.”

Law’s letter to priests triggered an immediate response from the Coalition of Concerned Catholics, which for months has led public prayer services and protests.

Through an e-mail action alert, Anne Barrett Doyle, St. Agnes parishioner and one of the coalition’s spokespersons, notified hundreds of members of a protest and vigil outside the cardinal’s residence. “We are mobilizing now, Friday afternoon, [April 12] in front of the chancery,” she wrote. “We’ll stay through at least 7 p.m., when we will have a candlelight vigil.”

The coalition’s e-mail alert said: “Law must go now -- he’s a disgrace to our faith and all we hold dear.” Other concerns raised by the organization include the need for archdiocesan “full disclosure” of its records on all abuse cases, “full and fair settlements” for all victims, and church reform -- “change so that lay people have voice and this abuse never happens again.”

The April 12 mobilization and vigil played out under the lights of local broadcast cameras, as well as in print media. Because so many media outlets expected Law to resign, broadcast vans with satellite dishes had assembled outside the cardinal’s Lake Street residence. Law, who had not been seen in public for several days, had not spoken to the press for weeks.

Outside the cardinal’s mansion, other protesters held signs asking motorists to honk car horns if in agreement that Law should leave office.

Freelance journalist Chuck Colbert writes from Cambridge, Mass.

National Catholic Reporter, April 26, 2002