Conference Focuses on Clergy Abuse

By Ann Givens
Newsday [New York]
October 26, 2003

They came from Massapequa and Manchester, Conn., Crown Heights and Camden, N.J.

More than 1,200 Catholics from 14 states gathered yesterday at Fordham University's Bronx campus to discuss the recent sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church, and the best way to move beyond them.

"I couldn't live with myself if I didn't do something about what happened," said Vera Powers, 64, who traveled to the conference with friends from her home in Belle Harbor. "I can't tell you how many lives have been ruined."

The conference, which was organized by the Voice of the Faithful, an organization formed last year in response to the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, featured nearly 100 speakers covering topics from "Restoring Trust and Credibility" to "The Revitalization of the Priesthood." It was the third major conference organized by the group, including one in Melville last month.

The Voice of the Faithful, which boasts 30,000 registered members worldwide, lists its goals as supporting victims of clergy sexual abuse, supporting priests of integrity and shaping structural change within the church.

One central theme at the conference, and in the Voice of the Faithful's mission, is that lay Catholics should have a greater voice in the workings of the church. "The hierarchy that have always thought that they are the church now have to recognize that you are the church," said Louis Serrano, a former New York City police officer who spoke at the conference about his son's alleged abuse by a priest.

The conference's keynote speaker, Eugene Kennedy, author of "The Unhealed Wound: The Church and Human Sexuality," said the sexual abuse crisis is a symptom of larger problems within the church, including a mandate to hide sexual feelings and a rigid and uncaring hierarchical structure. He even opened with a joke in which the Holy Spirit tells God that he'd like to visit Rome. When God asks why, the Holy Spirit replies, "I've never been there."

Kennedy said the only positive thing to come out of the sexual abuse crisis is that "There is a consciousness among Catholics everywhere that this is the problem of the official church in which they have lost confidence, not in Catholicism, in which they retain their faith."

Yesterday's conference was received coolly by several area archdioceses, which would not allow their newspapers to accept paid advertisements for the conference. Five separate newspapers refused the ads, including the New York Archdiocese's paper "Catholic New York," organizers said.

Patricia Paone, 75, of Manhasset, was one of at least 50 Long Islanders who made it to the conference even after the bus that was supposed to take them there failed to show up. Like many at the conference, Paone said believing in her religion does not mean following the church's dictates to the letter.

"I think the pope is a saintly man," she said. "But I don't have to agree with him on everything."


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