Catholic Activists Set Sights on Bishops
Lecture by National Authority on Priest Abuse Vies with Rally for Greater Accountability

By Alan Scher Zagier
Naples Daily News [Naples FL]
February 29, 2004

Local Catholics who gathered Saturday night in East Naples to hear a scholarly analysis on the historical underpinnings of the priest abuse scandal departed with more than just newfound knowledge.

On the heels of a national report that tallied 10,667 sexual abuse claims since 1950, they left the session at St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church with a call to arms ringing in their ears.

"It's time for the laity to call for zero tolerance for the bishops," said Peg Clark, president of Voice of the Faithful Southwest Florida, the local chapter of a national group formed two years ago to promote greater public involvement in church decisions.

"The crisis is no longer a crisis in the priesthood, it's a crisis in the hierarchy. The bishops have been inept, negligent, they've allowed this conduct to continue by moving (abusive) priests from parish to parish."

Today's New York Times includes a full-page ad in which VOTF asks its supporters to petition Rome for a meeting of victim advocates and Pope John Paul II. The open letter also urges the pope to root out U.S. bishops known to have allowed abusive priests to continue in the clergy.

More than 200 people came to the local group's second annual speakers' forum to hear the Rev. Donald Cozzens, a theologian from Cleveland and author of two books on contemporary challenges to the priesthood.

While not directly discussing the survey released Friday by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cozzens left no doubt that the report of 4,392 American priests accused of sex abuse was a scar on modern Catholicism.

"A number of us priests would like to pull the covers up over our head and stay where it's warm," he said. "Telling the truth isn't easy. Sometimes telling the truth to power is the most difficult thing of all."

Cozzens spoke of the "small treasons" that have compounded the sins of sex abuse. Treasons such as denial, deference and deflation.

"Our small treasons are wounding the body of Christ and seriously weakening the moral body of the Catholic Church," he said. "So many of us are not feeling at home in our own church. It's as if we are exiles in place."

The roots of the current scandal can be traced to the Catholic Church's origins in feudalism, Cozzens suggested. It's a system driven by blind, unquestioned loyalty that is belatedly starting to crumble from within, he said.

"We are witnessing the unraveling of the last feudal system in the West," said Cozzens.

Feudal vestiges can still be found in today's Catholic Church. Among the examples:

kissing the rings of bishops;

the continuation of " courtly" titles such as "your excellency" and "your eminence;"

maintaining a high-ranking position in some dioceses known as monsignor literally, "my Lord."

"I am not at all critical of the need for loyalty, adult obedience and respect as essential for the life of the church," Cozzens said. "There will always be some form of ordered structure. ... But a healthy church insists on an authority that is ... not authoritative."

Like his hosts with Voice of the Faithful, Cozzens urged the gathered laity to demand change and make their voices heard.

"This is the laity's moment," he said. "You need to help bring about a new consciousness."

The abuse survey conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice also prompted stern words from Bishop John J. Nevins of the Diocese of Venice, which supervises parishes in Collier, Lee, Sarasota and seven other Southwest Florida counties.

Noting that he was "horrified and saddened" by the scope of abuse outlined in the study, Nevins also urged his flock to move toward healing.

"Some may wonder when this difficult chapter in the Church's life will be closed. In one sense it never will be, because we have experienced a sinful and predatory aspect of human nature against which we have to be permanently on guard," Nevins said in a statement issued Friday.

"However, in the sense that the Church is fully alert to the problem and committed to preventing it again, as far as humanly possible, a page has been turned and a new chapter begun."


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