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Church in Crisis

Scandal diminishes church clout


In the four months since the clerical sexual abuse scandal began rocking the Boston archdiocese, the church’s stature and prestige have been seriously damaged. From the statehouse to the local rectory to gatherings of everyday believers, the once formidable power of the cardinal’s office is being challenged.

The local press here has begun to chronicle how the once bedrock loyalty of the descendants of Catholic immigrants has turned to outrage over the conduct of the hierarchy in protecting priests known to be sex abusers, moving them from parish to parish.

The church’s diminished clout was on display in the Beacon Hill statehouse, where 75 percent of the commonwealth’s legislators are Catholic. As early as Jan. 30, the Massachusetts House, over church objections, passed by a 140-16 majority a bill requiring employee insurance coverage for contraceptives and estrogen replacement therapy. The state house also defeated an amendment that would have broadened exemptions to the mandated insurance coverage. The broadened exemptions would have covered institutions with religious affiliations such as Catholic hospitals and social service agencies. The bill mandating coverage was signed into law and takes effect on Jan. 1, 2003.

More recently, the state’s acting governor, Jane Swift, who is Catholic, signed a bill into law mandating clergy and certain laypersons to report child abuse. The new law adds Massachusetts to 28 other states that make members of the clergy mandatory reporters.

State legislators in 1983 refused to include clergy in a bill mandating that other professionals such as doctors, teachers, social workers and the police report child abuse. Consequently, the archdiocese acted legally when it concealed abuse from public view. State Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly, a Catholic who has openly criticized Law and others for their handling of the scandal, wondered how many children might have escaped harm if the 1983 law had included the clergy.

Law also has lost the support of State Sen. Marian Walsh, long considered one of his most loyal allies in opposing abortion and advocating social justice issues.

“I never thought that a leading facilitator for child abuse would be the church, where the church would supply the victims and hide the perpetrators,” she told The Boston Globe.

Noting the evidence of diminished influence, the Globe has written, under the headline, “Scandal erodes traditional deference to church,” that “prosecutors, judges and politicians are now holding the cardinal and church leaders to a higher standard.”

Priests in public opposition

While these legislative developments indicate a waning of the archdiocese’s influence on relatively mainstream social policy matters, perhaps an even stronger measure of the cardinal’s diminishing political clout came last month at a joint state House and Senate committee hearing. Two priests publicly opposed the church’s position. The topic was same-sex marriage.

Dozens of lesbians and gay men gave testimony April 10 at the statehouse recently, speaking out against a proposed ban on same-sex marriage. Viewed by the local gay community as potentially discriminatory, the measure proposes to amend the state’s constitution. If approved by the voters, the amendment would prohibit civil marriage rights and benefits for gay couples, as well as threaten any kind of legal recognition, rights and benefits for same-sex partners, including domestic partnership health insurance.

While many of the gay community’s longstanding political, legal and religious allies gathered in the state house to oppose the gay civil-rights setback, they were joined -- for the first time in state history -- by two Roman Catholic priests.

Testifying against the same-sex marriage ban were Jesuit Fr. Tom Carroll, director of the South End’s primarily gay worshipping community, the Jesuit Urban Center at the Church of the Immaculate Conception, along with Fr. Rich Lewandowski, pastor of St. Camillus Parish in Fitchburg.

“I’ve been waiting 15 years for a Catholic priest to testify on behalf of our community,” said a joyful Arline Isaacson, co-chair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus, one of the commonwealth’s leading gay political organizations.

In Carroll’s worshipping community, 75 percent self-identify as lesbian or gay and nearly one-third also identify themselves as having a same-sex partner. Some of those same-sex couples have children who have been baptized into the church.

“Our concern for the spiritual welfare of these children -- our children -- cannot be without a parallel concern for their broader welfare,” Carroll said, speaking before the Legislature’s 17-member Joint Committee on Public Service.

“That broader welfare should not fail to receive in our civil law protection equal to that afforded to those children whose parents are free to be, and blessed to be, in legal marriage. We would turn our backs on Catholic social teaching, on our shared religious and ethical roots, and on the liberating vision that has grounded and united us as a nation should we construct … a legal fortress that walls [off] any of our very vulnerable sisters and brothers, our children, regardless of their parentage.”

Lewandowski expressed similar concerns for not only the children of same-sex couples, but also their parents. “My fear is that House Bill 4840, rather than honestly supporting marriage and family life, might be used to encourage unjust discrimination against gay men and women and their committed relationships and cause inexcusable harm to the children in those relationships,” he said. Quoting from the 1992 Catechism and “Always Our Children,” a pastoral letter from the U.S. bishops addressed several years ago to Catholic parents of gay children, Lewandowski added: “It is not sufficient only to avoid unjust discrimination. Homosexual persons ‘must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity.’ ”

Although not able to attend the meeting, Fr. Walter Cuenin of Our Lady Help of Christians Church in Newton, provided written testimony, which was read aloud. “It is certainly important for this Commonwealth to support the institution of marriage,” Cuenin’s statement reads. “But why do we need to do it at the expense of those who are not married and in a manner that could seriously harm the children of these other relationships?”

Depriving the children

Among Catholic laymen and women who also testified against the ballot measure, was State Attorney General Reilly. “Simply put,” he said, “House 4840 sweeps broadly to deprive the children and dependents of same-sex relationships as less worthy of our protection, less worthy of our gratitude when their parents or partners are killed in service to us, and less worthy of our empathy in time of personal hardship and loss.”

Reilly added, “House 4840, rather than strengthening the bonds of marriage, tears at the fabric of our community and divides us. For this reason alone, the measure should be rejected.”

Not all Catholic testimony opposed the anti-same-sex ballot measure. C.J. Doyle of the Catholic Action League of Massachusetts argued that if state law permitted civil marriage rights for gays, “not only would the integrity of the family be gravely compromised, but the moral and legal barriers erected against bigamy, polygamy and incest would be weakened, perhaps fatally,” he said.

However, missing from the ranks at the state house of those who oppose same-sex marriage were any bishops or Roman Catholic clergy.

One-quarter of the 200 members of the state House and Senate must approve the ballot measure in a Constitutional Convention, now scheduled for June 19. Another convention next year would have to approve the measure before it would appear on the 2004 ballot for approval by the voters.

Law gives deposition

The sex abuse scandal took another dramatic turn when Law was deposed May 8, 10 and 13 by attorneys representing dozens of victims who allege sexual abuse by former priest John Geoghan. That deposition lasted three days, with transcripts of the first days made available to the media via the Internet. But Law’s attorneys prevented the release of the other two-day’s testimony for at least 30 days, pending the cardinal’s review.

The week before, a group of mostly archdiocesan priests, estimated between 100 and 200, gathered May 3, at Boston College, away from the media spotlight. The turnout was the largest ever for Priests’ Forum, according to one parish priest who attended the gathering. He and two other members of the clergy also spoke about the gathering on condition they not be identified.

Diocesan clergy have been meeting since last fall. In an April 11 Boston Globe op-ed, written by the ad hoc leadership team of the Priests’ Forum, eight members of the clergy explained the group’s genesis. “Three pastors wondered if other priests felt as they did that there was a need for priests to come together to talk about issues of concern,” they wrote.

“Before long others had joined them. Then the Globe ‘Spotlight Team’ brought the issue of priest sexual abuse to light in the reports. Then need to discuss issues of the priesthood became more urgent,” they added.

Those who co-authored the piece include Frs. Robert Bullock, chairman, Walter Cuenin, Paul Kilroy, John McGinty, Gerry Osterman, Thomas Powers, Daniel Riley and Dennis Sheehan.

Fr. Donald B. Cozzens, author of the widely noted book, The Changing Face of the Priesthood: A Reflection on the Priests’ Crisis of Soul, spoke at the May 3 meeting. Cozzens, who served as president-rector and professor of pastoral theology at St. Mary Seminary and Graduate School of Theology in Cleveland, is writing another book.

He made two presentations at the Boston College priests’ gathering, according to one priest who attended. The presentations were aimed at addressing the local clergy’s need to take care of themselves during the current crisis, according to one priest in attendance.

“It was clear to me from the beginning,” this priest said, “that this was not a meeting for discussing a statement. The value of the meeting is that it was the largest group the forum has attracted.”

But a different kind of meeting, this one more strategic in focus, may take shape when the group meets again on June 7.

While priests are gathering and speaking among themselves privately, many are spending much time listening to the anguished, hurt and outraged voices of their parishioners. Listening sessions have been held in nearly every parish throughout the archdiocese. In some cases, parishes have held several such sessions, with pastors fielding questions from those in attendance.

Parish priests are also supporting the organizing efforts of the Voice of the Faithful, the church reform advocacy group that has sprung up in Wellesley, Mass., one of Boston’s western suburbs, among other locations. Not only are pastors running weekly notices about Voice of the Faithful’s meetings -- explaining the group’s mission and goals -- but some are assisting laywomen and men in establishing parish voice chapters in their respective churches.

‘Wonderful confidence’

Some pastors are speaking out on a regular basis regarding the local clergy sexual abuse scandal, as well as other spiritual concerns. In his weekly notes from the director, for example, Fr. Tom Carroll of the Jesuit Urban Center, wrote May 12: “Jesus shows us a wonderful confidence in the ordinary believer, in hearts that know both faith and doubt, both confidence and fear, both zeal and reticence.”

Carroll continued: “This confidence in the ordinary believer marked the dynamic of life in the early church, where bishops could be chosen by the acclamation of the faithful, and with the shared and full assurance that the Spirit was poured out on the whole community of believers -- an outpouring that surprised some among that leadership who first thought their mission was only to those who first entered the Jewish community.”

Finally, Carroll wrote: “This confidence in the ordinary believer was celebrated, as well, in the Second Vatican Council and is enshrined in the documents of that council”

Confidence in the faith of the ordinary believer is also a recurring theme at the Monday evening meetings of Voice of the Faithful (NCR, April 26). This past week, another Jesuit priest spoke in public about the current situation in the local church. Fr. Bill Clark, who teaches in the religious studies department at the College of the Holy Cross, encouraged a small gathering of the laity at St. John the Evangelist Church.

Quoting from Lumen Gentium, Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Clark reminded the laity to speak out about their needs and desires with “liberty and confidence which befits children of God, brothers [and sisters] of Christ.” He said reading from the document: “By reason of the knowledge, competence, and preeminence which they have, the laity are empowered -- indeed sometimes obliged -- to manifest their opinion on those things which pertain to the good of the church.”

Continuing, he quoted from Lumen Gentium, paragraph 37: “If the occasion should arise, this should be done through the institutions established by the church for that purpose and always with truth, courage and prudence and with reverence and charity towards those, who by reason of their office, represent the person of Christ.”

Freelance journalist Chuck Colbert writes from Cambridge, Mass.

National Catholic Reporter, May 24, 2002