Listen to Them, Bishop

Providence Journal [Fall River MA]
November 1, 2003

Bishop George Coleman, who leads the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fall River, would do well to meet with members of Voice of the Faithful.

Although he promised "inclusion" as a hallmark of his episcopacy, Bishop Coleman refuses to join in even a polite discussion with Voice of the Faithful, a group of lay Catholics whose stated aim is to help the church heal from the scandal of sexual abuse by priests.

The group recently paid to print an advertisement in The (New Bedford) Standard-Times, asking for open dialogue with the bishop. No response. Several letters to the bishop since June have also gone unanswered.

Voice of the Faithful's goals, as set down in the advertisement, are: support of the abuse victims; more support for priests of integrity; greater lay participation in shaping the church's culture; and improved education of the laity. This platform seems sufficiently reasonable to warrant dialogue. Perhaps the bishop believes his public posture is proper; some, however, are left with the uncomfortable feeling that arrogance may be involved.

In a May 22 letter to the diocese's priests, Bishop Coleman expressed "strong reservations" about Voice of the Faithful as a new lay advisory group. Parish councils of lay parishioners already played an advisory role, he wrote. Yet a recent survey shows that 60 percent of Fall River Diocese parishes do not even have parish councils (an indication of their popularity with priests).

The bishop also ordered the priests to have no contact with Voice of the Faithful, and to bar the group from any church facility. And he said that he would not be prepared to judge the appropriateness of this new organization for a long time.

Yet his decision to anathematize the organization in his May letter implies that he has already judged the group's appropriateness. What he has not done is listen to its members -- even though they are part of his flock. Nor has he responded publicly to questions about his opposition to the group.

You would think that, if only for public relations -- if not basic civility -- he would hear out Voice of the Faithful: to avoid the appearance of bias.

Bishop Coleman's treatment of members of his own flock is disconcerting.


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