Layman Seeks to Change Church
He Urges People in Pews to Act on Behalf of Victims of Abuse

By Roselyn Tantraphol
Hartford Courant Staff [Hartford CT]
March 20, 2004

Consider it the 6 percent solution.

When Warren Mason sought a way to pressure the Springfield Roman Catholic Diocese, he felt his salesman's instincts kick in. Why not, he suggested to his parish priest, withhold the portion of funds earmarked to the bishop's office, while leaving the funds for education untouched? Six percent would underscore that this was meant to be a protest move, not an anti-church stance.

"He looked like he was going to go into a coma," Mason recalls of the man staring back at him.

But the Rev. James Scahill soon became an ally, and the unusual step that St. Michael's Church in East Longmeadow, Mass., took has drawn national attention since that summer of 2002.

Until now, Scahill has been the public face of this unlikely duo. But Mason is stepping out of the shadows now to call on his fellow parishioners to rise up. With a new bishop appointed last week to replace recently retired Bishop Thomas L. Dupre, who is now being investigated on molestation allegations, Mason feels the laity in this diocese of about 241,000 has only a narrow window to be the force of change.

As the scandal over pedophile priests in the Catholic Church widens, scrutiny has been focused on the actions of church leaders. But Mason believes the laity's "fawning deference" to the hierarchy has enabled a culture of absolute power among the clerics, and now is the time to reclaim control.

"The big part of the problem," he said of the waves of abuse allegations plaguing the U.S. Roman Catholic Church, "is the laity itself."

"They can certainly pray," said Mason, a 1973 graduate of Springfield's Cathedral High School. "Praying is wonderful. But they also need to be proactive."

Mason, a 48-year-old marketing consultant who has not allied himself with any Catholic advocacy group, believes big donors can help drive reform by threatening to withhold funds unless systemic changes - including implementing a stronger system of checks and balances - are promised within the diocese.

He hopes people bombard newspapers with letters. He wants churchgoers to sound off to their parish priests.

Wait until after the new bishop's April 1 installation, and it's far too late, Mason believes.

"If he's going to clean house, the best time is now," he said in an interview in his home last week. "Once he's there for a couple weeks or a couple months, he may be beholden. This is the key time."

Mason believes change will come only if parishioners are relentless in their demands. And he will tackle this project the way he has worked on other diocesan issues the past couple of years - through e-mailing calls to action, introducing advocates to one another, sending out some op-ed pieces and ghost-writing others.

James Post, president of the Voice of the Faithful group, which counts more then 30,000 members, knows Mason well.

"The impact from that is probably much greater than he even realizes," Post said. "It connects people in Peoria, San Francisco, Seattle. It gives them energy and courage to bring this to their own community."

These are the types of networking skills that come naturally to Mason.

"I am an introvert," Scahill said last week. "Warren is a salesman."

St. Michael's Church drew notice for its stand against the diocese long before the allegations of molestation against Dupre surfaced.

Two men said recently that they were molested by Dupre in the 1970s when he was a parish priest. Appointed bishop in 1995, Dupre resigned in February - citing health reasons - just one day after being confronted by The Republican newspaper of Springfield.

Hampden County District Attorney William M. Bennett subsequently announced that a grand jury had been convened to consider possible criminal charges against Dupre, which, if it happens, would make him the first U.S. bishop to face criminal charges in this abuse scandal.

Timothy A. McDonnell was named last week as the diocese's eighth bishop. Many area Catholics reacted with optimism that church unity will be restored under McDonnell.

"I look forward to someone coming from the outside, an outsider to take charge of the diocese and hopefully set things the way they need to be done," one of the hopeful, Deborah Ransom, said last week after a Mass at St. Michael's Cathedral in Springfield.

"I Didn't Trust Warren ... Only God."

Richard R. Lavigne, who was defrocked in January, was convicted of child molestation. His case sparked a series of events that would lead Mason's church to take its stand.

The Springfield diocese, citing obligations under canon law, had continued to pay Lavigne a stipend after the Chicopee resident was convicted and removed from his post. Disgusted, Mason said he decided in the summer of 2001 to stop attending Mass or give money to the church.

"It's the only crime I know of where the victims pay to get victimized again," Mason said. When Scahill became the new priest in his parish, he ran the idea of the 6 percent withholding by him.

To his surprise, Scahill was persuaded.

In exchange, Mason pledged that he would stand behind Scahill, working behind the scenes to arrange media coverage of the Sunday Mass where the announcement would be made. That would help insulate Scahill from fallout.

"I give Father credit," Mason said. "He's the public face of it. I don't live in the community of priests."

Looking back, Scahill is blunt about that meeting. "I didn't trust Warren Mason one little bit," he said. "I trusted only God."

Dominick Cotela of Somers, who has attended St. Michael's since the 1960s, said Scahill's message about the power of the laity struck a chord. "There's no question about it. As Father Scahill would say, `The church is the people,'" he said.

Mark E. Dupont, spokesman for the Springfield diocese, noted that circumstances had not changed between Lavigne's arrest in 1991 - when he was removed from ministry by the diocese - and the time St. Michael's took this action.

"No one was complaining through those years," Dupont said. "Understandably in 2002, the Boston situation brought new attention to it."

Scahill has been increasingly concerned that people are creating celebrities out of two Catholics who want merely to be messengers - two men who fear that the attention will veer away from the victims, where it belongs. "We never went into this seeking any kind of celebrity," he said.

Both men said that they are not forging a new path here, but trying to double back to an old one.

"We're not trying to bring down the church," Mason said. "We're trying to bring the church back to its roots."


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