Priest Put off by Protest
Liaison Cancels Talk with Lay Group
By Annmarie Timmins firstname.lastname@example.org
Concord Monitor [Nashua NH]
September 18, 2003
NASHUA - Bishop John McCormack's liaison to clergy abuse victims told a Nashua lay group he could not meet with the organization if it promoted a victims' solidarity march for Sunday where McCormack will be called on to resign.
The Rev. Edward Arsenault also doubted the worthiness of the solidarity march, which will be held outside St. Joseph's Cathedral in Manchester at 9 a.m., prior to Mass.
"As for solidarity with survivors, may I suggest that you and those with whom you meet consider a more constructive approach to (assist survivors) than with a 90-minute presence outside a church full of faithful Catholics?" Arsenault wrote Monday to Marge Thompson, a member of the Nashua Voice of the Faithful. The group had set up an unrelated meeting weeks ago with Arsenault to discuss the diocese's relationship with the group.
Arsenault's e-mail continued: "I would suggest that more constructive approaches to participation in the mission of the church would lead to forgiveness, reconciliation and healing from the Lord."
George Thompson, Marge's husband and the chairman of the Nashua lay group, was so offended by Arsenault's response that the couple wrote back together and called off the group's get-together with Arsenault, which was set for next Thursday.
"To comply with your requirement (not to promote Sunday's march) would force us to disassociate ourselves with the survivors," George Thompson wrote this week. "And we will not do that."
Arsenault is in North Conway for a three-day diocesan retreat and could not be reached for comment yesterday. Pat McGee, diocesan spokesman, said Arsenault took issue with Voice of the Faithful's promotion of the solidarity march because the march's main purpose is to force the resignations of McCormack and Bishop Francis Christian for their mishandling of clergy sexual abuse complaints.
"The diocese stands in solidarity with victims, and I think we've shown our commitment with our support groups, meetings with victims and our response to lawsuits," McGee said. "But when we are aware that (Voice of the Faithful) is promoting an event whose single purpose is calling for resignations, we didn't see what would be gained by meeting with them."
There was never supposed to be a connection between Arsenault's meeting with the Nashua group and this weekend's march.
Marge Thompson began corresponding with Arsenault in July, after she learned that diocesan officials had advised brothers at Bishop Guertin to keep quiet about abuse allegations they were facing. She disliked the suggestion of a cover-up and told the diocese so in writing.
Arsenault wrote back and said he'd put her in touch with someone if she wanted to discuss her concerns. Marge Thompson responded with enthusiasm and asked Arsenault if a diocesan official could meet with the entire Nashua chapter of Voice of the Faithful because so many people shared her view.
The idea suited Arsenault and he wrote on July 10 that he would work on arranging a meeting. In August, Arsenault wrote Marge Thompson again, asking what issues the group would like to discuss. George Thompson and other members of the group spent a few hours jotting down their questions and organizing them.
In early September, they sent Arsenault their list.
They wanted to know how bishop, clergy and diocesan staff felt about Voice of the Faithful. They wanted assurances that Arsenault knew the group's members were faithful Catholics who cared about the church.
They wondered what was being done to involve the laity more meaningfully in church matters. And they wanted to know if the diocese would encourage a conversation between the laity and clergy about the future of the church.
By the time Arsenault responded on Sept. 10, he had heard about the solidarity march, its focus on McCormack's resignation and knew that the New Hampshire Voice of the Faithful was advertising the event. (The group is not an official sponsor but alerted members so they could decide whether to attend.)
Arsenault told Marge Thompson in an e-mail that he needed a better sense of the Voice of the Faithful's role in the march before he committed to the Sept. 25 meeting.
Marge Thompson explained the group's decision to advertise and questioned the relevance between the march and the group's meeting with Arsenault.
"I am sorry that you fail to see the relevance," Arsenault wrote back on Sept. 11. "I would like some clear communication from your state leadership that NH VOTF is neither sponsoring nor promoting the event. Short of that, I think that it would be difficult for me to attend the meeting of an organization that has reached a conclusion (that McCormack and Christian should resign) that is simply not a solution."
George Thompson said yesterday that he considered Arsenault's stance an implied threat.
"It was, 'I will answer your questions only if you abandon the survivors,' " he said. "It really ruffles me that he attempted to use this as a device to bend us to his will."
Anne Pullen of Concord, the chairwoman of the statewide Voice of the Faithful, could not be reached yesterday. Carolyn Disco of Merrimack, a member of Voice of the Faithful and New Hampshire Catholics for Moral Leadership, which is co-sponsoring the march, was upset that Arsenault treated the two events as connected.
"It's unacceptable and it's disappointing," she said. "Just because we have a different position (on McCormack's future) doesn't mean he shouldn't be wiling to talk to us about other issues. Resignations are a very small part of what we do."
Several of the nine Voice of the Faithful chapters in New Hampshire have held lectures on Vatican II, reached out to clergy and survivors and met with experts to better understand sexual abuse as part of their mission to support survivors and priests of integrity and to work for change in the church.
McGee said yesterday the diocese is still "open to constructive dialogue with anyone concerned about the mission of the church."
(The solidarity march will be held Sunday from 9 a.m. until 10:30 a.m. at St. Joseph's Cathedral on Pine Street in Manchester. Several survivors and Catholic activists are scheduled to speak. The event will close with a silent march for survivors. For more information and directions, go to www.nhcatholics.org. Annmarie Timmins can be reached at 224-5301, ext. 323, or by e-mail at email@example.com.)
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