Church Keeps Meeting Ban on Lay Group
Voice of the Faithful Delegates Meet with Fall River's Bishop, but Nothing Changes

By Conor Berry
Cape Cod Times [Fall River MA]
Downloaded February 9, 2004

A ban imposed by the Roman Catholic Church prohibiting a lay group from meeting on church-owned property or publishing announcements in parish bulletins remains in effect.

A meeting last week between the bishop of the Fall River Diocese and a delegation from Voice of the Faithful, the Newton-based group formed two years ago this month in response to the clergy sex-abuse scandal, didn't go the way members of the Catholic lay organization had hoped.

"It was disappointing," Voice of the Faithful member Christopher Boyd of Mashpee said of the group's first-ever meeting with Bishop George W. Coleman.

For months, the group had sought a face-to-face meeting with Coleman, who in July became the leader of a diocese ministering to 350,000 Catholics in 101 parishes across Southeastern Massachusetts, including the Cape and islands.

"The bishop was kind to invite us and very polite," said Boyd, but the ban continues.

However, church officials did agree to meet again with members of the lay group in four to six weeks.

The four-member delegation included Boyd, two other Cape residents and one from Mattapoisett, all of whom said they were frustrated but not surprised by Coleman's refusal to lift his May 2003 prohibition.

"It wasn't a shocker for me," said Gerry Hart of Falmouth, a delegation member. "Yes, I'm disappointed he didn't make a decision at that point, but he has a reputation for being cautious."

Barred from facilities

Voice of the Faithful is barred from using any church facilities or bulletins to communicate its message. Diocese officials have said that allowing the group to meet on church premises would violate canon law, which prohibits any new "innovations" that would "prejudice the bishop to make a decision," diocese spokesman John Kearns said in a past interview with the Cape Cod Times.

Existing church advisory panels, including pastoral, finance, deacon and priest councils, already provide a forum for laypeople to discuss their concerns, church officials have said.

The nearly two-hour meeting Thursday in the bishop's Fall River office was amicable but slightly tense, participants said. Coleman brought several high-ranking diocese officials with him.

"Everyone was courteous, but I think the bishop was a little cool," Hart said.

Coleman, in a brief statement issued Friday, called the session a "frank and constructive dialogue," but added, "it became apparent that more time was needed for the members of the Voice of the Faithful to clearly and completely explain its objectives and related issues."

Complaints about media

Those in attendance said Coleman had complained about the group's use of the media to spread its message, singling out the Cape Cod Times' coverage of an October Voice of the Faithful event at Sandwich High School.

The bishop was roundly criticized at that event by Jim Post, the lay group's co-founder and president, who took Coleman to task over prohibiting the organization from meeting at diocese churches.

"A bishop fails to be a spiritual model when he fails to recognize the fundamental morality of letting people meet in their churches," Post told the Sandwich crowd of 175.

Voice members now meet wherever they can, including in libraries, senior centers and private homes.

"We are really a community in exile," said Bill O'Brien of Mashpee. "We are mainline Catholics; we are not dissidents."

Church officials skeptical

Much of the meeting was spent trying to assuage the bishop's concerns over the group, whose stated mission is to increase openness and accountability regarding the sex-abuse scandal and to shape structural change within the church.

"We want to be a conduit for people who are disillusioned with the church and have information that they want to feed back - constructive information," O'Brien said.

Despite Coleman's seeming suspicion of the organization, Carol Markey of Mattapoisett, the fourth member of the delegation, vowed the lay group would continue to encourage members to stay active in parish affairs.

Since the establishment of Voice of the Faithful, church officials have grown increasingly skeptical of its intentions, with some believing the group has a reformist agenda that includes advocating for women or married priests.

"That's a mischaracterization of our objectives," said Boyd, emphasizing that most members are Mass-going, "mainstream Catholics" who are fully involved in church life, not activists trying to push an agenda.

"If there's a hidden agenda, I'm not aware of it," Boyd said.

"What I would like to see is more openness, transparency and accountability," Hart said.

Many groups, including some that are not Catholic, use church facilities, said Boyd, "yet here's an organization of Catholic parishioners who cannot use church property."

Diocese spokesman Kearns said the meeting was "a good beginning, a sharing of what Voice of the Faithful is looking for, what it is looking to do."

Boyd was less optimistic.

"It sounds like it's going to take a long time before there's any substantive change in the diocese's view of Voice of the Faithful," he said.


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