Voice of the Faithful Starts Here

By Tara Dooley
Houston Chronicle [Houston TX]
Downloaded November 1, 2003

It was not that Sheila McNulty had extra time on her hands to organize church meetings.

But the clergy sex-abuse crisis in the U.S. Catholic Church fueled a desire to make time.

"I don't feel good when I go to church now," said McNulty, 36, a Houston-based reporter for the Financial Times. "I feel angry. That is not the way it should be. There are a group of us who feel that way. Until we feel the church has accepted responsibility, I think all of us are going to feel that way."

Despite a time crunch, McNulty decided to bring together a group of like-minded Houstonians and start a local chapter of Voice of the Faithful, the national organization of lay Catholics dedicated to change in the church.

"I had watched this controversy for the past year and thought: Why didn't Houston have these meetings?" she asked.

Sunday, the group will hold its first public meeting at St. Anne Catholic Church.

"It's not that (sex abuse) is not Houston's problem," McNulty said. "It's a church problem, and since the church is in Houston, it's our problem."

Voice of the Faithful started in January 2002 after newspaper accounts revealed a pattern of clergy sex abuse in the Boston Archdiocese. The crisis snowballed as hundreds of priests and some bishops in dioceses throughout the country were implicated.

The organization's first meeting, a "listening session" in Wellesley, Mass., also started a snowball effect.

The meetings became regular gatherings that drew hundreds, said Steve Krueger, executive director of the Boston-based organization. The group incorporated in June 2002 and has grown to about 30,000 members in 41 states with more than 180 affiliates such as the one starting in Houston, he said.

"It was a very rapid and organic sort of spreading of the organization," Krueger said in a telephone interview. "It has really evolved and has evolved as much into a movement as it did into an organization."

The Catholic movement has not always been welcome, and at least nine dioceses and archdioceses including some in New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts have banned Voice of the Faithful meetings on church property.

Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza of the Diocese of Galveston-Houston knows that the group will meet at St. Anne Catholic Church and plans to "keep the lines of communication open," said spokeswoman Annette Gonzales Taylor. Diocese leaders are familiar with the national organization, but know little about the newly formed local affiliate.

The Houston group consists mainly of local Voice of the Faithful members, who were involved mostly by checking the group's Internet site or sending donations. McNulty decided to take responsibility for holding the church responsible.

Houston organizers don't know how many people will come to their first meeting. But they expect to generally introduce themselves and the mission of Voice of the Faithful.

"There are countless things you can do," McNulty said. "I can't dictate what his affiliate will do. It's a group decision."

Nationally, Voice of the Faithful's first goals were to support those abused by priests and to back "priests of integrity." But it also aims to "shape structural change within the church." Its motto is "Keep the Faith, Change the Church."

"We need to address the root cause of the problem as a church," Krueger said. "One of the things that the Voice of the Faithful has been advocating is for church officials to acknowledge that the problem itself goes beyond the clergy sex abuse crisis."

The group believes in a stronger and more representative role for Catholic lay people in church financial, personnel and planning matters. It steers clear of advocating for "hot button" issues such as married or female priests, which are not allowed in the celibate all-male Catholic clergy.

"What we are witnessing today is a paradigm shift from the old model of church, of pray, pay and obey, to some new model of church," he said.

Though Houstonian Paul Merriman believes that sexual abuse by clergy members is horrific, it's the "change the church" part of the mission that will draw him to the inaugural meeting of the local Voice of the Faithful.

Merriman is a lifelong Catholic who sent his now adult children to Catholic schools. A retired company president, he is a member of St. Michael Catholic Church on Sage and has served on its parish council and a bishop's committee.

Though he considers himself a committed Catholic, he believes the rules and structures of the church have sent members of his family and others who live in the modern world on a dash out of the pews.

And he believes it is time for church leadership to listen.

"Somebody has to tell them to change," Merriman said. "I'm on the side of people who say something."

Voice of the Faithful will meet at 4 p.m. Sunday at St. Anne Catholic Church, 2140 Westheimer.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.