Voice Conference Calls Church to Accountability, Openness

By Chuck Colbert
National Catholic Reporter [Bronx NY]
November 14, 2003

They came to the conference 1,500 strong from 14 states, but mostly from the tri-state region of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

Voice of the Faithful, the lay-led, church-reform organization born in the wake the Boston sex abuse scandal, sponsored the Oct. 25 event at the Rose Hill Campus of Jesuit-run Fordham University in the Bronx. Titled "Being Catholic in the 21st Century: Crisis, Challenge and Opportunity, it was a full day of dialogue, reflection and strategic planning for the future.

The conference featured dozens of speakers -- survivors, their advocates, lawyers, clergy, psychologists, journalists, theologians and academics -- all of whom called for transparency and accountability, openness and truth telling as ways to rebuild the church.

Svea Fraser, a founding member of Voice of the Faithful, traveled from Boston to attend. "Any time a group of people devotes an entire day to listening, discussion, praying and inveighing, the hope we carry for a renewed church is rekindled, she said.

"The sexual abuse and the subsequent cover-up is symptomatic of much deeper issues. It is not about treating the symptom only. The crisis is one of systemic dysfunction and demands the persistence of those who will accept nothing less than structural reform and greater lay involvement, Fraser said.

Although the conference theme was forward looking, with a focus on opportunity and hope, the pain and anger of the sexual abuse crisis was never far below the surface of every formal presentation and casual conversation. By the end of the day, most participants were in agreement: The crisis of clergy sex abuse is not over.

"The facts are that priests raped kids," said Paul Baier of the Boston-based advocacy group Survivors First.

"Bishops covered this up, and in the last 10 months we've seen four scathing grand jury reports," he told a plenary session of conference participants.

"There is no moral authority until we deal with this," Baier added. "The church has no right to talk about pro-life, genetic engineering, poverty and euthanasia until we get this right," he said. "I don't know what to tell my 5-year-old daughter. What am I supposed to tell her? Do what bishops say, not what they do?"

Support for survivors was a key focus of the day. "Keep the faith, change the law," said Mark Serrano, a national board member of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP.

"Any child who endured sexual assault deserves recourse to justice in a courtroom no matter how long ago the crime took place," said SNAP's Ben Cotton.

His remarks referred to stalled efforts in New Jersey state legislature to create a one-year window in the state's statute of limitations and to remove the charitable immunity cap protection -- both proposed changes in the law for cases involving the sexual molestation of a minor.

Cotton went on to explain that "recourse to justice" gives survivors like himself "a platform to heal," as well as giving "the leaders of the Catholic church an unmistakable incentive to protect today's children."

Another theme of the conference was empowering the laity to find its voice. "In the last two years, the church as people -- the church as you -- has been called to find your voice," said keynote speaker Eugene Kennedy, a noted psychologist, former priest, and author of The Unhealed Wound: The Church and Human Sexuality.

Asked Kennedy, "And now why do we raise a voice if not to affirm the age of hierarchically dividing persons or organizing churches is over, that the wholeness of good people who understand that they, not the buildings or the bishops are the church, demands that we reject forever the divided model that has caused so much sadness for so many on their human sojourn?"

On a positive note, Kennedy said, "There is a consciousness among Catholics everywhere that this is a problem of the official church, in which the people have lost confidence, not of Catholicism, in which they retain their faith."

Kennedy also urged lay Catholics in Voice of the Faithful to think of themselves "as the modern counterpart of ancient [religious] orders."

In a similar vein, Fordham's president, Jesuit Fr. Joseph McShane, urged Voice of the Faithful to view its movement as part of the mainstream, one based in Catholic tradition. "Please remember that you are a movement born of the heart," he said during his welcoming remarks.

In addition to plenary sessions and keynote addresses, conference participants attended smaller breakout sessions. Topics ranged from "Restoring Trust and Credibility," to "The Revitalization of the Priesthood," from "The Media -- Solution or Problem," to "Sexuality and the Modern Priesthood."

Just as some speakers challenged bishops for their lack of accountability and failure of moral leadership, so other speakers confronted church teaching on sexuality for its lack of credibility.

During one breakout session, for instance A.W. Richard Sipe, former priest, psychologist, and author of Sexuality and the Search for Celibacy, said, "The catechism teaching, the official church teaching about sex is not credible. I know of no other way to say it."

According to Sipe, "Crisis is the wrong word to describe the present status of the Catholic church. It is in an inevitable, irreversible and inexorable transition.

"The sexual abuse of minors by clergy is the poster issue of the current transition," he said, "much as the sale of indulgences was the poster issue in the 16th century.

"The Catholic hierarchy has not provided moral leadership in the sexual crisis confronting us." As a result, he said, "folks in the pew recognize that any institution that cannot tell the truth about itself has nothing worth listening to."

NCR editor Tom Roberts was the conference's final presenter, wrapping up the day on a note of hopeful realism. Roberts said a working title for his talk would have been "Toward a credible church of fully functioning adults."

Assuring Voice members of their importance to the future reform of the church, Roberts commented: "Do you understand how important your stubborn faith is to the church? Your bishops ought to be throwing parties for you and thanking you for staying, not refusing to talk to you."

Quoting Fr. Bryan Hehir, who had recently spoken at a Catholic gathering at Boston College, Roberts said, "There is a range of definable, discussible issues [in the church] for adults. The laity needs to say, at every level, 'We simply won't accept anything less than adult conversation.' "

That, said Roberts, "ought to become the mantra of whatever movement this is: 'We simply won't accept anything less than adult conversation.' "

As someone looking in from the outside, Roberts said, "I would like to make one suggestion, and that would be to resist the temptation to define yourself over against other groups.

"It is enough to be a different group. There's no need to be openly opposed to other efforts. We don't need more divisions in the church." Roberts also offered some pointers for action:

"Know the case you want to make. Know the history. Then make the case.

"Don't stay isolated. Make the connections, parish to parish and diocese to diocese.

"Don't allow one faction of the church to define orthodoxy or claim themselves exclusively faithful to church teaching."

Freelance journalist Chuck Colbert writes from Cambridge, Mass.


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