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Cover story

Belleville diocese plans ‘lay synod’


Catholics in southern Illinois, motivated by the clergy sex abuse scandal throughout the country, are planning a June 8 “lay synod” for the Belleville diocese.

“The one clear issue is the lack of accountability on the part of the hierarchy along with the inability of the laity to exert any influence on church decisions,” said Lena Woltering, coordinator of the Fellowship of Southern Illinois Laity, a 9-year-old social justice and church reform group affiliated with the Call to Action organization. Belleville, a sprawling, mostly rural diocese covering the bottom third of Illinois, is headed by Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The idea for a synod, involving only laypeople and no clergy, developed during a meeting in early April of the steering committee of the fellowship. Some 20 nonmembers from parishes throughout the diocese arrived unexpectedly and insisted it was time for action.

After discussion, a synod committee was formed. “The people planning this are not fanatics,” said Woltering, a 54-year-old freelance interior decorator, wife, mother and grandmother. “One man at the meeting said, ‘I’m just amazed at this gathering. There isn’t a rabble-rouser in the bunch.’ ”

What is present in the diocese, said Woltering, is long-simmering concern about decision-making, especially involving the consolidation and closing of parishes and the use of diocesan funds for the treatment of sex abusers and for settlements to abuse victims.

Belleville was the center of a scandal in 1992 and ’93 when some 10 percent of its active clergy were removed from their positions as a result of charges of sexual misconduct.

Plans for the synod include presentations by a canon lawyer explaining the rights of lay Catholics and by a representative of the Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church exploring lay Catholic responsibilities and practical strategies. Participants will deliberate and form resolutions.

The event could draw 200 to 300 people, said Woltering, and participants are expected to bring ideas back to their parishes and encourage parish-wide meetings. As the call for action grows, a second, larger synod involving priests, bishops and laity could convene later in the year.

The lay reform organization has something of a history with Gregory. Its leaders have been meeting with him three or four times a year for more than five years. Although the results of these meetings “have not been great,” said Woltering, “we are at least on record with him voicing our concerns and challenges.” Gregory has assisted the group through a grant for the workshops it organizes on the death penalty.

The Fellowship of Southern Illinois Laity “has been whacking away on justice and reform for a long time,” said Woltering. “Now it’s pretty clear that a whole lot of people realize something alarming has been going on in the church, and they intend to be involved in the reform.”

Robert McClory is an NCR special report writer.

National Catholic Reporter, April 26, 2002