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Cover story
Church in Crisis

4,000 meet to give laity a voice


Since its inception last winter here, the largest lay-led, church-reform advocacy group to emerge in the wake of the Catholic church sex-abuse crisis has expressed its mission in six words: “Keep the Faith, Change the Church.” By design, the group, Voice of the Faithful, is centrist, with leaders and members reaffirming on many occasions their intention to build up the church through change from within.

But July 20 at a daylong gathering 4,200 people heard speaker after speaker hammer away at the hierarchy, its culture of clericalism and the millennia-old ecclesial power structure of the worldwide church.

The meeting, called “Response of the Faithful,” garnered the support of national survivor groups such as Survivors’ Network for Those Abused by Priests and Linkup, and major national figures like David Clohessy, Barbara Blaine and Mark Serrano, who attended the convention and have long advocated for the rights of abuse victims.

Dominican Fr. Thomas Doyle received Voice of the Faithful’s Priest of Integrity Award. Doyle was a canon lawyer at the Vatican Embassy when he co-authored a 1985 report on the impending crisis, urging the U.S. bishops to form a national policy (NCR, May 17).

Accepting the award, Doyle suggested that some of the hierarchy suffer from “unbridled addiction to power.” The laity, he proposed, are called to help free those bishops and priests from the “chains” of their addiction, helping “them to find the joy and happiness of sharing.”

“Sexual abuse has been a symptom of a deeper and much more persuasive and destructive malady: the fallacy of clericalism,” Doyle said.

The current crisis marks “the beginning death throes of the medieval monarchical model that was based on the belief that a small select minority of the educated, privileged and power-invested was called forth by God to manage the temporal and spiritual lives of the faceless masses on the presumption that their unlettered status equaled ignorance,” he said.

But “that was 1302,” Doyle said. “This is 2002, and that model is based on a myth that certainly is long dead, if it was ever real in the first place.”

Still, he expressed optimism. “Out of this disaster has emerged hope,” Doyle said, and “the realization that we must have a deep, probing and painful scrutiny of the governmental system that caused this to happen and real change.”

Primarily laity

Those who converged on the Hynes Convention Center were primarily members of the laity -- Catholics with deep roots in their local parishes and associated ministries. Priests and women and men religious also attended. Overall, the gathering had representatives from 36 states and seven countries.

Dan Daley, co-director and a founder national Catholic reform group Call To Action, was in attendance. “It is remarkable that this new group could, using volunteers, draw 4,000. We put on conferences every year and we know what is involved. It is a wonderful coming of age of a strong lay voice movement.”

Noting that many of those at the gathering were members of Call to Action Massachusetts, Daley said he had begun conversation with leaders of the new group about possible collaboration in the future.

“The major difference between CTA and Voice of the Faithful is that Voice is not yet taking positions on issues apart from lay participation,” he said. “For instance, they don’t yet have positions on a married priesthood or women’s ordination, positions we have been clearly advocating while they are focused on lay voice. So there is some difference of agenda at this point.”

Major highlights of the convention weekend included:

Announcement of a monitoring process, or report card, enabling the various parish-based Voice of the Faithful chapters to evaluate the U.S. bishops based on their compliance with the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, adopted by U.S. bishops at their June meeting in Dallas (NCR, July 5). Spokesperson Paul Baier said at a pre-convention news conference July 19 that Voice chapters would soon begin to evaluate their bishops and that reports would be posted on the Internet by fall.

Establishment of a “Voice of Compassion Fund,” designed to accept charitable contributions from people unwilling to contribute directly to the cardinal’s annual appeal in Boston. The following Monday, Cardinal Bernard Law said the archdiocese would not accept money from the fund; however, Catholic Charities of Boston said it would not turn down any donation. (See accompanying story.)

Overwhelming approval of a declaration, or charter, affirming the role of the laity in “constant renewal of the Catholic church, as proclaimed in Lumen Gentium and other Vatican II documents.” The declaration also petitioned “the Holy Father to support this charter and to hold accountable any bishop who reassigned an abusive priest or concealed his crimes, and any member of the curia who participated in these practices.”

“It was an amazing day to see all our efforts come together in such a wonderful way for so many people,” said Mary Moran, of St. Gerard’s Parish in Canton, Mass., who joined Voice of the Faithful in April.

“When the crisis came down, I like many others felt a range of emotions, torn among anger, hurt and sorrow for the victims,” she said. “Voice has been a means of dealing with and working through my anger.”

Added Moran, a retiree who served as a diocesan director of religious education: “It’s been my salvation, providing me, a Catholic woman who dearly loves the church, a way toward a future church.”

Right and responsibility

In his welcoming remarks, Voice president James E. Post outlined the group’s agenda. “Today, we assert our right and our responsibility as baptized Catholics to participate in the decision-making processes of each parish, each diocese and the whole Catholic church,” he said.

“The hierarchy that failed to protect our children cannot be trusted to exercise sole control over the property, money and fate of our church,” he said.

“We want our bishops to talk with us,” he said. “But let me be clear about the terms of this dialogue: We will not negotiate our right to exist. We will not negotiate our right to be heard. We will not negotiate our right to free speech as American Catholics.”

Founding president James E. Muller, a Nobel Peace Prize-winning cardiologist, in addressing the crowd, offered a hopeful sign for continuing dialogue. Bishop Walter Edyvean, vicar general of the Boston archdiocese, “has told me that Cardinal Law and the bishops are unanimous in their support of the ongoing conversations between Bishop Edyvean and the leadership of Voice of the Faithful,” Muller said.

Muller detailed the group’s “great progress” to date, including 19,000 members in 22 nations and 75 chapters, called “parish voices,” nationwide.

“Nineteen hundred years ago, the divine message of Jesus Christ was fresh, clear, ethical and uncorrupted --when the laity had a voice in selection of bishops,” Muller said. “We must build a church that Jesus would survey with a smile.”

During plenary sessions and smaller workshops, convention attendees heard from theologians. Moral theologian Lisa Sowle Cahill of Boston College pointed out that while reforms of Vatican II came from the top down, current calls for change push up from the bottom. She also called on the Voice movement to include all the diversity of the church, noting how well off, white and senior many of the participants were.

Francine Cardman, an associate professor of historical theology and church history at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass., referred to Luke’s Gospel and the parable of the sower and the seed, after which Jesus admonishes his followers to “pay attention to how you listen,” since, she said, “parables both reveal and conceal God’s kingdom to those who hear them.”

Stressing the urgency of paying “attention to how we listen,” she said, “The bishops have journeyed to Rome, they have met in Dallas, they have agreed on a policy. They want the story to be over, its meaning sealed, the questioning stilled.

“But in Boston,” she said, “a state superior court judge, educated at Sacred Heart College, tells Cardinal Law that he can’t hide behind his diocesan finance committee in order to renege on the financial settlement he agreed to for 86 victims,” Cardman said.

“Here and elsewhere grand juries are being convened to consider the legal culpability of bishops for shuffling around and protecting sexually abusive priests. The press has put aside the deference it once showed the church, a deference that enabled abuse and endorsed unaccountability. And everywhere revelations of abuse will continue to come to light as more victims/survivors, including the still-invisible little girls, speak their truths,” she said.

Survivors spoke at the convention, giving compelling witness to the anger and pain, isolation and needs of sex-abuse victims.

Susan Renehan told participants, “When I was 11, I was sexually molested by a priest; and for three years I was repeatedly stalked and sexually abused. I left the church as soon as I got my driver’s license at 17. ...

“We do not want your voice. We want your shoulders next to ours outside your churches in solidarity against crimes committed against your children and vulnerable adults and demanding of your church leaders truth and justice for survivors and survivors’ families.

“We don’t want your priests of integrity. We want their voices telling what they know.

“You need our voice to teach you that you need to heal before you can forgive, and you need the truth before you can heal.

“We do not need your voice. We want your hearts. We want your compassion. We want your humility.”

Splendid but too late

A small group of survivors stood outside holding placards -- as they have done outside the cathedral on Sunday mornings for many months -- bearing witness to the scandal.

Art Austin, another survivor, told the gathering during the closing plenary session that for the protesters, “quite legitimately, your splendid conference is too little too late, and too much about you, when it should always and urgently and long since, have been about them. For them, this event is a shadow play, a thing without substance. And before you begin to grow indignant with me for saying this, let me ask you. How many of you took the time to even find out the name of one of those angry survivors?

Quo vadis? Where are you going?” Austin asked the Voice gathering, referring to the risen Christ who posed that same question to Peter, who was fleeing from his life in Rome. “The time has come when Voice of the Faithful must make a similar choice between its desire for mere public and churchly respectability before all else, or the extremely unmanageable, unpredictable, and often alarming, radical grace of God in the world,” he said.

“The time has come to walk with us, after the liturgy, from this convention hall, with me, to the cathedral to stand in solidarity with each survivor victim who trusts you enough to let you walk with them.

“You can walk away from this. We cannot. Ever.”

After the celebration of the Mass, between 700 and 800 people -- more than double the other two previous public street demonstrations of solidarity with victims -- assembled on the steps of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross.

The next day, Austin, along with two other members of the Coalition of Catholics and Survivors, stepped inside the cathedral long enough to receive Communion from Law.

Law said to them, “Pray for me,” the Boston Herald reported.

Austin told the Herald, “It was a very healing moment because it was not the archbishop or the cardinal who spoke to me. It was my brother, Bernie, who responded to me. I touched him literally and I touched him figuratively. And he was able to receive that. That’s the radical grace of God in the world.”

Freelance journalist Chuck Colbert writes from Cambridge, Mass.

National Catholic Reporter, August 2, 2002