Upset Catholics Launch Group
Members Seek Changes after Sex-Abuse Crisis
By Bruce Nolan email@example.com
Times-Picayune [New Orlean LA]
November 15, 2003
In varying tones of dismay, anger and hesitation, two dozen Catholics gathered in a convent chapel this week hoping to change their church through a New Orleans chapter of Voice of the Faithful, the national grassroots movement spawned by the clergy sex-abuse scandal.
The embryonic group adjourned its first full meeting after 90 minutes of introductions, exploratory conversations and some wrenching testimony from two of three sexual abuse victims who attended, and the mother of a fourth.
Their number included two priests, two nuns and a several laypeople who declined to confirm their names because they said they worried for their church-related jobs.
In the round of introductions, a common theme emerged: They said they were Catholics -- some lifelong, some converts and some newly returned to the church -- who wanted to see some structural changes to make church governance more accountable to the faithful, and to prevent another systemic failure like the sex-abuse crisis.
"I'm here because I love my church," said Sister Jane Aucoin, a former principal of Cabrini High School. "I don't want to change any of its essentials, but I don't want this ever to happen again."
Others said they were disturbed by what they see as a sense of apathy -- or worse, indifference -- among other Catholics who have not seized the moment to demand change.
One of the group's founders, Adele Foster, a math and religion teacher at St. Stephen Elementary School, said her own grown children's indifference to Catholicism troubles her.
"As active Catholics, aren't we supposed to be worried about this?" she asked.
Born last spring in a church basement in Newton, Mass., near the epicenter of the abuse crisis, Voice of the Faithful now claims to have 188 chapters in 40 states.
A Baton Rouge affiliate emerged in July. That, in turn, spawned the New Orleans group, which, after a series of planning meetings, met officially for the first time Sunday at the convent of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille.
Organizers said the group has three goals: to support victims of clergy sexual abuse, to support priests of integrity and to shape structural change within the church.
With some exceptions, most of the bishops who run 195 dioceses across the country have taken a cautious, arms-length approach to Voice of the Faithful.
As of last summer, eight bishops had refused to allow the groups to meet on church property. Some suspect that Voice of the Faithful is a benign front for Catholics who seek doctrinal changes such as women's ordination, which bishops say would violate the church's basic understanding of the priesthood.
In New Orleans, Archbishop Alfred Hughes "has neither endorsed nor is he banning any efforts to establish Voice of the Faithful," said the Rev. William Maestri, the archdiocese's spokesman. "However, he has encouraged them to work through their existing parish and school structures to realize their stated purpose."
Maestri said the archdiocese is in the early stages of a strategic planning process that recently completed public hearings to gather grassroots opinions on Catholic life in New Orleans. He said Hughes encourages Voice of the Faithful members to participate in the planning process.
So far, the leading item of concern that has surfaced at those meetings has been continuing affordable Catholic education, Maestri said.
Public reaction to the clerical sex-abuse crisis has surfaced in some comments, he said, but has not emerged as the dominant concern at the hearings.
In metro New Orleans, Foster and her husband, Mark, a software engineer, became interested in the movement after reading months of stories detailing clerical sex abuse of minors decades ago and bishops' efforts to conceal repeated abuse.
In time they became convinced by little signs -- a chance encounter with a piece of Scripture or the urging of friends, especially Sister Aucoin -- that they were being led to organize a local chapter of Voice of the Faithful, Adele Foster said.
A small group coalesced at St. Clement of Rome parish in Metairie; after a series of steering committee meetings it moved and held its first official meeting at the convent.
Almost all at the meeting were older than 40, evenly divided between men and women.
Among them were two priests, the Rev. George Weber, a friend of the Fosters' and pastor of St. Stephen's, and the Rev. Ron Henery of St. Anthony of Padua parish. Neither took a leading part in the conversations; Henery offered occasional encouragement. "As long as this thing is moving forward, I'd like to support it," he told the group.
Victims tell their tales
The first conversations were tentative and exploratory. Two people who identified themselves as survivors of sexual abuse, David Brien and Lyn Hill Hayward, both active in the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, recounted their experiences. Both said they are deeply skeptical of the authenticity of the church's outreach to victims.
A third person, Marlene Meilleur, said her late son was sexually abused by a priest. Her story cast a hush over the group. A woman who declined to give her name later tried to offer some consolation: "Many of us feel responsible for what happened to you in our church -- a church that's supposed to be Christian, that's supposed to be a witness," she said.
"Many of us don't feel there's been a sense of accountability -- and that's what we want to see change," she said.
Still, many at the introductory meeting acknowledged they were intimidated by the thought of speaking out. More than one described a sense of group fear.
Those who were more open about their participation admitted a second problem: At least in the early going, they said they were stumped about where to begin.
"Eventually I see us trying to have some dialogue with the archbishop, and perhaps some lay membership on important committees," Mark Foster said. "But where do we start to crack that nut? I'm not sure where to start a dialogue."
Voice of the Faithful can be reached at VOTFNO@aol.com. An archdiocesan online survey seeking comments on Catholic life in the archdiocese is at www.archdiocese-no.org/forms/form.html.
Bruce Nolan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (504) 826-3344.
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