'Are You Blocking Us?'
James Muller, a Founder of Voice of the Faithful, Describes His Fractious Run-Ins with the Boston Archdiocese
By James E. Muller and Charles Kenney
Beliefnet [Boston MA]
March 30, 2004
The meeting in this excerpt from "Keep the Faith, Change the Church," by James E. Muller and Charles Kenney, took place in March 2002.
Bishop Walter Edyvean sat directly in front of me across an enormous conference table in the wood-paneled boardroom of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. Over his shoulder, out a huge picture window, I could almost see down onto Commonwealth Avenue, where an encampment of journalists had maintained a vigil ever since the horrific news broke about the sexual abuse of children by priests and the cover-up by the Church hierarchy. The almost-daily revelations of new atrocities, first in the Boston Globe and then in papers across the country, triggered a widespread sense of shock and disbelief among the faithful. The leaders of an institution dedicated to promoting Christian values had desecrated those values. It was as if firefighters had become arsonists, or doctors had intentionally spread disease.
The shocking cover-up of sexual abuse by the hierarchy had caused me to question the foundation of my cultural and spiritual identity. The Catholic Church had guided and nurtured me in many ways. I was a graduate of St. Joan of Arc Grade School, Cathedral High School, and of the University of Notre Dame before attending the Johns Hopkins Medical School. An uncle was a priest, an aunt a nun. My father had been the medical director of a large Catholic hospital.
But I knew that I could not remain and simply accept what had happened.
And so I helped form a grassroots organization called Voice of the Faithful. We are a group of devout Catholics, now more than thirty thousand strong, with a determination to be heard. We started out meeting in a suburban church basement and now have nearly two hundred active parish affiliates from Florida to Alaska.
Early on, the founding members of Voice of the Faithful decided that our historical docility had contributed to the cover-up and it must end. We saw our meeting with Bishop Edyvean as a crucial step toward that goal. We wanted to be embraced by the hierarchy of the Boston archdiocese, to work in partnership with them on the local level. Our goal was to forge a trusting relationship with the cardinal and others in the hierarchy so that the laity could gain a seat at the table, become part of the process of decision-making, and help build a better Church. We would approach this goal with a cooperative tone, yet if our voice was not heard, it would rapidly become clear that we had moved beyond our prior "pay, pray, and obey" mentality.
Our group was just a few months old, and we greatly valued this first opportunity to meet face-to-face with a member of the hierarchy. As Vicar General, second in command to Cardinal Bernard Law, Bishop Edyvean was a powerful figure. Now in his early sixties, he had a reputation as an erudite, courteous man who was particularly well connected, having served for some years at the Vatican. In Boston he played a behind-the-scenes role, implementing the policies of Cardinal Law.
Today, Bishop Edyvean was joined by another priest, a young canon lawyer, while I was attending the meeting with two other members of our group, Mary Scanlon Calcaterra and Steve Krueger. I arrived just as the meeting was starting, having raced to the chancery from Massachusetts General Hospital, where I work as a cardiologist. Coming to the meeting that day, I believed that we had much to offer to the hierarchy. I felt a sense of exuberance for I knew we could help. I was sure that if the local hierarchy were to embrace us it would be a signal to countless Catholics deeply troubled by the scandal that there was a genuine desire to work with the laity to improve the Church. My excitement approaching the meeting was tempered, however, by reports we had been hearing that Bishop Edyvean was working back channels against us, presumably at Cardinal Law's instruction.
We began the meeting with a prayer, led by the bishop, and then exchanged pleasantries.
Having been awarded honorary degrees from five Catholic colleges, I was accustomed to affable discussions with Church officials, and I hoped this meeting would not be an exception. But the mood quickly grew tense as the younger priest, Father O'Connell, attacked our group, stating that we had no right to solicit funds from the laity, since that right was reserved for the Cardinal. He implied that our very existence somehow undermined the leadership of Cardinal Law.
While I was surprised by his arrogance, and the hostile tone he had suddenly injected into the meeting, our prior discussions had provided a ready answer to his charge. We replied that we supported the authority of the hierarchy but that as lay Catholics we had a right and even a responsibility to help our Church in its time of crisis. We only sought funds from those who did not want to contribute to the Cardinal's appeal because of the scandal. And we would turn the funds over to the Cardinal for use for the charitable works of the church.
We also noted that in acting secretly without adequate cooperation with the laity, Cardinal Law and other members of the hierarchy had committed grave errors of judgment. Cardinal Law and others had transferred many priests who had sexually molested children to other parishes where they continued as sexual predators. The Cardinal had not only transferred these men, but he had led a massive cover-up as well. We noted that our group had been formed in response to these failures, which indicated a greater need for cooperation with, rather than subjugation of, the laity.
The accusatory tone set by Father O'Connell made it easier for us to pose the difficult question for which we needed an answer.
"Bishop Edyvean," I said, "we've heard that you're blocking us in parishes, that you're calling pastors and telling them not to let Voice of the Faithful meet on church property." I looked him in the eye and paused a moment, then asked him directly: "Are you blocking us?"
The bishop hesitated, then replied, "There are a lot of issues we have with your organization. We have to know what you're about."
This response didn't ring true, for I was certain he already knew a great deal about us. A priest supportive of VOTF had told us that Bishop Edyvean had downloaded materials from our website. Newspapers, magazines, and television networks from all over the world had reported on our movement.
As I looked across the table it was clear to me that Bishop Edyvean hoped I would drop the subject. But I couldn't. So I posed the question again, this time in a tone with a bit more intensity.
"Bishop Edyvean, are you trying to block us?" The tension in the room increased. The canon lawyer at the bishop's side frowned, clearly annoyed.
"We'll have to do more research," he said, continuing to evade the issue.
I replied as respectfully yet as directly as I could. "You haven't answered my question."
This was not easy for me. I was a sixty-year-old lifelong Catholic with an instinctive reverence for priests and bishops—indeed, for all Church leaders. Yet I was also a scientist who believed in a probing search for the truth.
"Are you actively blocking our organization?"
There was a brittle silence.
Finally, Bishop Edyvean conceded that, yes, he had tried to block us, but he said that he had only phoned one parish.
My first reaction was appreciation that he had acknowledged an unpleasant truth. But now that it was confirmed, I was also amazed—astonished, really—that a bishop would act against some of the most enthusiastic core Catholics in his archdiocese who were acting in compliance with all the rules of the Church.
"We're concerned," he said.
Concerned? About mainstream lay Catholics who want to help their church through a crisis? I felt a great sadness, for I feared that the bishop's concern was reflective of what had gotten our church into trouble in the first place: a concern more for protecting the age-old culture of secrecy, for placing the power of the hierarchy above the safety of children.
Rather than pushing us away, rather than secretly trying to block our growth, it was clear to me that church leaders should have been doing the opposite--embracing us, welcoming our offers of help and support. For the sexual abuse scandal demonstrated flaws in Catholic Church governance that could only be corrected by the establishment of a powerful, democratically guided, presence of the laity.
After that, young Father O'Connell weighed in again, his tone hostile, accusing us of having called for the Cardinal's resignation. I said we had not done so; that although many of our members felt the Cardinal should resign, we as an organization had not endorsed the idea. I told him that on the night of the vote about the Cardinal I had led one of the most difficult meetings of my life; that I had insisted upon a rule which thwarted the will of 90 percent of our membership.
"You had no business even considering the question," Bishop Edyvean interrupted.
"Our members wanted to consider the question," I said, adding that we had every right to do so.
Mary Scanlon Calcaterra was surprised by the tone and direction of the meeting. She had come expecting Bishop Edyvean to be penitent. She thought he would admit the Church had a problem. She thought we would go in with a good faith offer of assistance and the bishop would welcome our help. Mary listened in amazement as the bishop and young priest spoke, "giving the impression that they knew everything and we knew nothing."
Mary then spoke up. She wanted to convey to Bishop Edyvean how important the church was to her personally. She told of having gone through the shattering experience of divorce and then following through with the process of getting her marriage annulled. She said that it had been helpful to submit to the rules of the Church. "It was a very healing process," she said. "It helped me move on."
She said that Voice of the Faithful had many members who were on parish council, served as lectors, sang in the choir, or taught religious education classes. They were deeply committed to the Church, she assured the bishop, but wanted to deal with the scandal head-on. One way to do that, Steve interjected, was for us to help financially. Steve explained that we had established what we called a Voice of Compassion Fund to raise money from the many people who were unwilling to donate directly to the archdiocese. Steve explained that we wanted to donate the money we were raising to the archdiocese with the stipulation that it go to charitable rather than administrative costs.
This set Father O'Connell off yet again. He said we had no authority to raise money and we should not do it. We were amazed by this because we were well aware that donations to the archdiocese were down sharply as a result of the scandal. We were collecting money that people were not willing to give to the Cardinal's appeal.
I asked Father O'Connell why we shouldn't raise money.
He replied that only the archbishop has the power to raise money. It wasn't about money but principle, he said. Then he gestured with his hands, lowering one down below the level of the table. "For us, money is down here," he said, then held his other hand high above his head and added, "and principle is up here."
Mary was taken aback. "The dismal failure of the Cardinal's Appeal will mean that it will be impossible to provide for the poor and needy in the archdiocese."
Father O'Connell then replied in a way that left us dumbfounded.
"Then they will have to go without," he said.
There was a stunned silence in the room. Did he say what we thought he said? It was the most revealing moment of the meeting. For it was an admission that power was what truly mattered; the Cardinal must have the power to raise money and he would share that power with no one, even if the consequence was that the poor would suffer.
It was a scandalous statement, and Bishop Edyvean surely knew it. He added nuances and tried to soften what this arrogant young priest had said.
We returned to less controversial issues and sought to bring the meeting to a close. I suggested that we agree to hold another meeting to see if we could find some common ground. Bishop Edyvean agreed. I raised the question of the media--there was a great deal of press interest in the fact that this meeting was being held. This led to our agreement that we would tell the press that we had a productive session and would soon meet again. Again, the bishop agreed.
We left the chancery at about 5:40 in the evening. A few minutes later, Mary was driving in her car when she received a call on her cell phone from a reporter seeking a comment on the meeting. Given our agreement to issue a joint statement, Mary was shocked by the statement that had been issued by the archdiocese. It stated that Voice of the Faithful would work under the direction of the Cardinal. The release was issued around 5:20 P.M.—while we were still in the meeting Mary felt we'd been had—completely blindsided. It was as though this were some sort of political campaign and the archdiocese was interested not in an honest dialogue about the crisis but in scoring points against us in the newspapers.
"It was my first personal experience of having been betrayed by the Church," Mary said. "I was stunned."