Catholics Gather for Voice of the Faithful Conference

By Louis Porter
The Advocate [New York]
October 26, 2003

NEW YORK -- More than 1,500 Catholics gathered at Fordham University yesterday for a conference of the dissident "Voice of the Faithful" movement.

Some speakers, such as Mark Serrano, were victims of sexual abuse by priests.

"Keep the faith, change the law," said Serrano, who made an out-of-court settlement with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Paterson, N.J., in 1987.

Serrano, a board member of the abuse victim organization SNAP, or Survivors Network of those Abused by Priest, broke the confidentiality agreement by speaking out after the priest who allegedly abused him continued in his position.

Sex abuse scandals that have rocked the U.S. Roman Catholic Church in the past few years are a symptom of a larger problem in the church, Serrano said. The real story is a culture of secrecy that allows such abuse to continue, he added.

Monsignor Kenneth Lasch, a priest who has since taken over the Mendham, N.J., parish where Serrano was allegedly abused, said, "I am left with the uncomfortable impression . . . that (church leaders) are concerned more with the rights of the accused than of the victims."

Though framed by photographs of clergy abuse victims hanging in the university's gymnasium, the daylong conference in the Bronx focused more on the Voice of the Faithful's goal of changing the structure of the church than on abuse.

"I think we need to have a formal voice for lay people and we need to have it on the parish level," said Joseph O'Callaghan, a former Fordham history professor from Norwalk who is chairman of the Fairfield County chapter of Voice of the Faithful. "The voice of all of these 1,500 people needs to be heard."

The church hierarchy has backed away from the dispersal of power among the laity and parishes since the second Vatican Council 40 years ago, said Robert Mulligan, another organizer of the Voice of the Faithful conference and a member of St. Jerome in Norwalk.

Many of the organizers and participants at yesterday's conference looked back on the changes the council introduced and said they seek to revitalize them.

"It has sort of been submerged," Mulligan said. He and others say they have been disappointed by Bishop William Lori's rejection of the group, Mulligan said. Lori, head of the Bridgeport Diocese, has accused the group of pursuing a hidden agenda against church teachings.

"Many of these bishops have a sort of bunker mentality," Mulligan said. But the church must become more open to the needs of lay members of local parishes, he said.

"We are Americans, this is a pluralistic society and we like to participate. We are realizing we don't have any participation" in the church, he said.

Not only are the members of the Voice of the Faithful Catholics, they also are often among the most active members of the church and serve as deacons and in other positions, O'Callaghan said.

Though the majority of the attendees of yesterday's conference were senior citizens from the Northeast, members said they expect the group to have staying power.

"I think the Voice of the Faithful is going to be here for a long time, because the issues that confront us have been festering for a long time," O'Callaghan said.

Like many dioceses in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, the Bridgeport Diocese did not allow the conference to be publicized in church publications or on church bulletin boards nor could it be mentioned by parish priests, O'Callaghan said.

"Bishop Lori is a wonderful person, and he has obviously endeared himself to the people of the diocese," said James Alvord of Norwalk, another member of St. Jerome. But he needs to open the church to lay groups such as Voice of the Faithful, Alvord said.

"All of us are part of the church," said James Butler, a member of St. Catherine of Siena Church in Greenwich.

The Rev. Joseph McShane, who was inaugurated Friday as president of Fordham, a university of the Jesuit order of the Catholic Church, welcomed the conference attendees, telling them they were inheritors of the first lay retreat members who gathered at the Bronx campus in 1909.

"I believe you are in a certain sense the heirs of that intrepid group," he said.


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