Catholic Forum Criticizes Bishops

By Gary Stern
The Journal News [New York]
October 26, 2003

NEW YORK Somewhere, the ears of bishops were burning.

And if they heard all that was said about them at yesterday's Voice of the Faithful conference in the Bronx, their stomachs might have been churning.

By and large, the more than 1,600 people from the tri-state area who came to Fordham University's Rose Hill Campus focused on the need to shake up the Catholic laity, to get generally passive men and women to re-read the Gospels and reclaim their church as Vatican II allowed.

In doing so, and in re-examining the church's sex-abuse scandal, they berated, rebuked and belittled a church hierarchy that many in attendance seemed to believe has no regard for them.

Keynote speaker Eugene Kennedy, a widely published psychologist, former priest and church critic, opened with a joke about each person of the Trinity making vacation plans. He explained that the Holy Spirit offered, "I'd like to go to Rome. I've never been there."

Voice of the Faithful, a lay movement that started in Boston in 2002 during the early days of the scandal, is walking a bit of a tightrope as it hunkers down for what will have to be a long-term commitment to reform its church. The group has been banned from meeting in nine dioceses and is regarded by conservative critics, including bishops, as a radical movement redefining what it means to be a faithful Catholic.

But the group insists that it wants to give laypeople a voice and to aid with structural reforms that might prevent future scandals, not to tamper with the ultimate authority of the bishops. Judging from attendance at yesterday's conference, which surprised even organizers, Voice of the Faithful has ample support in this region at least among white Catholics over 50 who favor blazers and sweaters.

The overriding message of numerous speakers was that Voice of the Faithful is not a fringe movement or some side project, but a mainstream Catholic movement that is based in Catholic tradition. Fordham's new president, the Rev. Joseph McShane, declared as much in welcoming the group, saying that Voice is a descendent of America's first lay retreat movement, which met at Fordham in 1909.

"Please remember that you are a movement born of the heart of the church," he said in Fordham's gym, still decorated with maroon bunting from his inauguration the day before.

Many speakers talked about their love for the church and how their faith is driving them to demand openness and accountability from the bishops.

Melissa Gradel, a Voice leader from Brooklyn, said the sex-abuse scandal has been described as a never-ending Lent.

"But we're Catholics," she said. "We know that Easter always follows Lent. We must keep the faith and change the church."

Steve Krueger, Voice's national executive director from Boston, said the group's members, as faithful and committed Catholics, could be the bishops' "best friends" if the bishops would just listen.

"If we put our faith in the truth of who we are, the truth of who we are will carry the day," he said.

Had a bishop wandered into the conference by mistake, though, he surely would have recoiled from more provocative statements, not from Voice leaders but from invited speakers.

Kennedy, in an eloquent and brash address, said that the church hierarchy, by denying sexuality, had lost its understanding of the human person and even true holiness, making scandal possible. He called homosexuals the scapegoats of the age.

"This is a problem of the official church, in which the people have lost their confidence, not of Catholicism, in which they retain their faith," he said.

Similarly, S.W. Richard Sipe, another former priest who has long studied sexuality in the priesthood, said the laity pays no attention to church teachings on sexuality, which are barely explained and yet strictly enforced.

"Folks on the pews recognize that any institution that cannot tell the truth about itself is not worth listening to," he said.

Sister Dorothy Ann Kelly, the former president of the College of New Rochelle, said the bishops have fought numerous opportunities to give the laity a greater voice, starting with the Second Vatican Council and continuing with the largely forgotten sex-abuse scandal of the early 1980s and the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin's "Common Ground" initiative of the 1990s.

She said the laity has to keep pressure on the bishops, despite the hierarchy's continued defensiveness.

"We have to be ready to sacrifice reputation, friends even, to press our cause of, what I like to call, patient engagement," she said.

Victims of sexual abuse also urged the conference to keep the heat on the bishops. Their stories, which still seemed to shock many, often ended with reminders that the bishops, ultimately, cannot be trusted.

"There's no moral authority until we deal with this," said Paul Baier of Survivors First, an advocacy group based in Boston. "The church has no right to talk about pro-life, genetic engineering, euthanasia, until we get this right."

Barbara Blaine, who founded the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests in 1989, said to look beyond policies and press releases.

"Look to the actions, not the words, of the bishops," she said.


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