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  Making Their Voices Heard: Seeking Change, Catholic Group to Meet in Montclair

By Alicia Zadrozny
Montclair Times [Montclair NJ]
October 1, 2003

For Cody Dalton, the delicate jeweled cross she wears around her neck is more than an ornament and more than a mark of her Roman Catholic faith.

Itís also the sign of a woman who asks questions of her faith and demands answers to them.

Dalton, a St. Cassian Church parishioner, became a member of the Northern New Jersey Chapter of Voice Of The Faithful (VOTF), an advocacy group that formed in response to the sexual abuse scandals of the Roman Catholic Church.

It took the nationwide sex abuse scandal that first broke in the Boston Archdiocese to ignite Daltonís fervor for change in the church and herself. The lifelong Catholic pored over church history and set out to educate herself on the faith.

What Dalton read in the news and in history books grieved and enraged her. Her faith shook, but then it steadied. She had contemplated leaving, but ultimately decided she would be a force for change.

"I love the faith. I have an issue with the church," Dalton said.

Her voice echoes the precise ideals espoused by VOTF, nationally and locally. Its mission is to support those who have been abused at the hands of clergy, to support priests of "integrity," and to achieve structural change throughout the church. These changes could mean strengthening the role of the laity and relaxing or eliminating the celibacy requirement for priests.

Archbishop John J. Meyers of the Newark Archdiocese banned Voice Of The Faithful from meeting inside any Roman Catholic church within the archdiocese. Due to this dictate, the group meets in other churches and facilities throughout the area.

On Oct. 16, VOTF will meet at St. Lukeís Episcopal Church in Montclair. David Gibson, author of "The Coming Catholic Church: How the Faithful are Shaping a New American Catholicism," will be the guest speaker.

The Archdiocese of Newark takes issue with much of VOTFís mission, said James Goodness, the director of communications for the Archdiocese of Newark. But Goodness said the archdioceseís approval stops short when it comes to structural changes within the church, particularly when advancing the idea of married or women priests.

VOTF will not be receiving the Newark Archdioceseís blessing as long as these ideas are promoted, said Goodness.

"If the structural changes are contrary to what the church teaches or its traditions, itís something that concerns us," Goodness said.

The archdiocese resolves to do much of what VOTF wants for the church, including enhancing laypersonsí roles, supporting clergy and protecting parishioners from abuse, Goodness said.

"Itís like a Ďmom and apple pieí statement. Itís something anyone would agree with," Goodness said.

Ann Zouvelekis, a co-founder of the local VOTF chapter, said the ban has not kept anyone away.

"People come even though their bishop has warned them against us. They have taken it upon themselves to come to hear and decide for themselves," Zouvelekis said.

Many of VOTFís members are, like Dalton, devout, but donít want to accept the status quo.

"Lifelong Catholics have just realized that if theyíre not part of the solution, theyíre part of the problem," Zouvelekis said.

This will only lead to the changes that VOTF desires, said Zouvelekis. "You feel empowered to question, and thatís the change that sparks the rest."

Carlos Martin, a Montclair resident, had finally found a parish where he felt at home when the news about the sex abuse scandals broke. Ultimately he resolved to stay at St. Francis Xavier Church on Manhattanís West Side and joined the Voice of the Faithful/NYC, West Side chapter, where he is now a director.

Although change is coming slowly, he is dedicated to pursuing it.

"I really believe the next important thing is to take the Catholic hierarchy to task," Martin said. "The church can no longer spend our money without accounting for it."

Some fellow Catholics are resistant to VOTF and feel obligated to obey the hierarchy. Dalton says even if their voice doesnít count, the money they drop into the collection plates does.

"Then youíre seeing something that is more tangible and immediate. Then you start seeing heads nodding," Dalton said.

The existence of groups such as Voice of the Faithful means not letting the public forget about the wrongdoings of the Catholic Church, said Matt Kelly, a spokesman for the state SNAP, or Survivorsí Network of those Abused by Priests. From these organizations, Kelly said, there will be change.

"Getting the word out to other Catholics and getting them concerned about these issues is how we benefit each other," Kelly said.

Voice of the Faithful groups have branched out across the nation and are even meeting inside individual parishes. Dalton wants the same for the North Jersey chapter.

"Itís the difference of having Thanksgiving with your friends or having it with your family," Dalton said.

After years of her own stagnant faith, the conflict in her church led Dalton to a deeper conviction.

And so, Dalton began wearing the jeweled cross that had been a rarely worn gift.

"Itís here now instead of in the drawer," Dalton said, gesturing at the cross on her neck.

 
 

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