Meeting at Church Not an Option for Many Members of Catholic Group

By Tim Townsend
New York Times
September 7, 2003

MOST church meetings take place in, well, a church. This is true even for a lay group like Voice of the Faithful, whose motto is, "Keep the faith, change the church." It's true, at least, in 187 of the 195 Roman Catholic dioceses in the country. In eight others, including two of Connecticut's three dioceses, the Catholic Church has banned the group from meeting on diocesan property.

Which is why, on a late July evening, about 40 Catholics who worship in the diocese of Norwich, gathered in the Colonial Room, a light blue conference hall with a green rug in a Days Inn just off Route 161 in Niantic. Farther south, in Norwalk, a group that once met at St. Jerome's said it was essentially kicked out last summer after speakers at a national Voice of the Faithful convention in Boston offended Bishop William E. Lori, who leads the Bridgeport Diocese. The group now meets at the First Congregational Church in Norwalk. They pass the hat each month and donate $100 to the church.

Besides the two dioceses that ban the group in Connecticut, all or part of six other dioceses across the country have stopped Voice of the Faithful from meeting on church grounds. They are: Camden, N.J.; Portland, Me; Boston; Rockville Centre, N.Y.; Newark, N.J., and Baker, Ore. In April, the outgoing Bishop Thomas V. Daily of Brooklyn became the first and only bishop to reverse his ban on the group.

Voice of the Faithful began with a meeting of 25 people at St. John the Evangelist Church in Wellesley, Mass., in January 2002. The topic of that meeting was articles in The Boston Globe that priests involved in sexual abuse cases had been protected and moved around the country by high-level church leaders.

According to its Web site, Voice of the Faithful now has 30,000 members in 40 states and 21 countries. There are 181 chapters in the United States, and James E. Post, Voice of the Faithful's president, said the group's budget is "in excess" of $500,000, with four full-time and six part-time employees. The first Connecticut chapter was organized in June 2002 at St. Bridget's in Manchester, and there are now 10 chapters in the state with more than 800 members, according to Jayne O'Donnell, the regional coordinator of Voice of the Faithful.

Voice of the Faithful has three goals, as stated on its Web site: "to support those who have been abused, to support priests of integrity and to shape structural change within the church." It is this last goal that concerns the group's critics, many of whom see a hidden liberal agenda that seeks to alter ancient church doctrine.

"What do they mean by structural change?" asked C.J. Doyle, executive director of the Catholic Action League. "They mean a weakened papacy, female clerics and a Protestant-style church government."

In Bridgeport, Bishop Lori released a statement last August that "cautioned" Catholics on the "Voice of the Faithful movement."

"I cannot support an organization like Voice of the Faithful which appears to promote dialogue and cooperation," the statement said, "but which in reality prosecutes a hidden agenda that is in conflict with the teachings of the Catholic faith."

Joseph McAleer, a spokesman for Bishop Lori, said the bishop will not meet with the group to discuss the ban or anything else, but has instead appointed "high-level contacts" to communicate and meet with the group and has put a priest in charge of attending Voice of the Faithful meetings. "It makes no sense to encourage the discussion of topics that are not open for discussion," said Dr. McAleer, meaning, "married priests, women ordained to the priesthood and homosexuality."

Voice of the Faithful's Dr. Post said the group speaks for those Catholics who fall somewhere in between liberal and conservative, and who are disgusted with the way church leaders handled the sexual abuse scandal. Though he praises Bishop Lori for the work he has done to help heal the church in the aftermath of the scandal (the bishop has set up a largely lay Sexual Misconduct Review Board to help him investigate accusations of priestly sexual abuse, for instance), he is also furious at the bishop and others like him who have banned Voice of the Faithful without even meeting with them to discuss the group's goals.

"What disturbs me about Bishop Lori is his continued refusal to sit and meet with us," said Dr. Post. "It's hugely presumptuous of him to think he knows what's on my mind without talking to me. How does he impute motives to me without talking to me, without hearing me out? It's an extremely arrogant posture for him to take."

Dr. McAleer said the diocese has no record of any contact from Dr. Post (though he said the diocese has had requests to meet with the local Voice of the Faithful chapter.) Voice of the Faithful, however, provided a reporter with a copy of a letter written by Dr. Post requesting a meeting with Bishop Lori dated Aug. 22, 2002. Dr. Post said he called the bishop's office three times in the weeks after he requested the meeting in writing, and that none of his calls was returned.

Dr. McAleer said it is an issue of transparency. "It is the question of changing the church that Voice of the Faithful has refused to be specific about," he said. "We're concerned about the leadership of Voice of the Faithful in our diocese, and its record in the past."

"We have not called for married priests, we have not called for a female clergy," said Joseph O'Callaghan, Voice of the Faithful's chairman in the Bridgeport diocese. "We do believe homosexuals are God's creatures just like everyone else and deserved to be treated just like everyone else, but we have not adopted positions on any of that. What we have been doing is talking about all these issues. Until there is some kind of dialogue, some kind of back-and-forth with the bishop, this crisis is not going to be over by a long shot."

In Norwich, Bishop Michael R. Cote has been on the job for only about three months, but has not changed his predecessor's policy toward Voice of the Faithful. The recently retired Bishop Daniel A. Hart met with the group's leaders last year, but told them he was not yet ready to permit them to meet on church property. Bishop Cote has scheduled a meeting with the same leaders this week, and would only say, through a spokesperson, that he is looking forward to hearing what they have to say.

In the meantime, the chapter is meeting at the Days Inn each month, for $75. At a recent meeting, the group gave a round of applause to a priest who was in attendance for the first time, the Rev. Arthur A. Archer of St. Agnes in Niantic. Father Archer said later that he was at the meeting because he was "interested in what members of my parish were doing."

Kevin Booth, chairman of the chapter's priest-support committee, said, "Our ability to accomplish anything as a group is only going to happen by working with the clergy." Few people know what Bishop Cote's views are on Voice of the Faithful. Some point out that before he was named bishop of Norwich, Bishop Cote was an auxiliary bishop in Portland, Me., a diocese that has banned the group. Others say it is unusual for a new bishop to reverse his predecessor's policies too quickly.

Last year, at the age of 75, Archbishop Daniel A. Cronin submitted his mandatory retirement letter to the Vatican, and many expect the pope to name his replacement any day, now that important leadership positions in Boston and Philadelphia and Brooklyn have been filled. Hartford is the only diocese in Connecticut that allows Voice of the Faithful members to meet in their own churches, and, according to Voice of the Faithful leaders, the archbishop has met with them on two occasions.

According to his spokesman, the Rev. John Gatzak, Archbishop Cronin considered it important that a priest be present at Voice of the Faithful meetings, and so allowed the groups to meet in their own parishes. "The archbishop presumed that these are good Catholic people who want what is good for the church, who want to better the church and move the church forward," said Father Gatzak. "He has not presumed that these people have any ill-will intent."

Just because Voice of the Faithful isn't banned in Hartford, does not mean it is popular among all the dioceses' laity. Paul Norton, a 48-year-old carpenter attended a Voice of the Faithful meeting in mid-July. "I was appalled," he said. "What was being called for was against the catechism and papal authority."

The group's defenders, like Dr. O'Callaghan, said there are a number of topics open to discussion in Voice of the Faithful meetings, that, in a sense, the group is about open discussion and, to that end, speakers on a variety of topics are invited to talk to members.

"I don't buy this position that Voice of the Faithful can divest itself from the beliefs of its leaders," continued Mr. Norton. "When leaders do something, it reflects on the group."


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