Local Lay Catholics Hope to Make Difference through Voice of Faithful

By Janet Ortegon
Sheboygan Press [Sheboygan WI]
October 1, 2004

In the ugly brotherhood of Catholic communities marked by scandal, Sheboygan can take its place among the struggling.

In an effort to reach out to victims of abusive priests and out of concern for the future of the Catholic Church, a group of Catholic lay people has started an affiliate of Voices of the Faithful in Sheboygan.

VOTF is a national group of lay Catholics that began in Boston more than two years ago, in the aftermath of widespread abuse and news of hierarchical cover-ups of abusive.

The Sheboygan affiliate has been active for about a year and it shares the national groupís tenets: to support the abused, to support priests of integrity and to shape structural change within the church.

Kathy Tarpey, a member of the local VOTF group, said lay people have a lot to offer the Catholic Church.

"It started as a response to the scandal, but people are (asking) can we change the church so this does not happen again?" Tarpey said. "So people in the pews have more of a voice in decisions that are made that affect us too."

VOTF member Bernie Nowicki said the organization has an important role to play in Sheboygan, in part because of the communityís history and in part because the Catholic Church is directed by Second Vatican Council to give its lay people a more important role in the church.

"We care about victims, we really do," Nowicki said. "It all came about because of Vatican II, which gives the laity more voice in the church."

In July, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee released a list of priests that who were restricted from ministry because of allegations of sexual abuse of a minor, and several of them had ties to Sheboygan parishes.

In 1993, the Rev. William Effinger, former pastor of Holy Name Parish, was convicted of abuse and sentenced to prison, where he died three years later. In early 2002, allegations of sexual abuse by priests began coming to light all over the United States, creating a scandal within the church that is ongoing.

Sheboygan has its own victims of clergy sexual abuse, and VOTF wants to provide them with a safe and welcoming place they can go to talk about what happened to them or to find help.

"If they come to a meeting, they donít have to tell us what happened to them," said VOTF member Ceil DePrey. "There is also support at Safe Harbor."

The group wanted to put together a special healing service for abuse victims, but didnít get much of a response. Likewise, notices in church bulletins about VOTF meetings have been largely ignored.

Although hundreds of victims have come forward in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, very few local victims have asked for help. Still, the group knows people who need help are out there and will continue to reach out to them.

Thereís plenty of room in VOTF for people who have direct experience with abuse and for those who donít.

"Thatís our challenge Ė how to reach people and encourage them to be part of it," Tarpey said. "Either as an interested Catholic Christian or as someone who has been victimized. I claim we all are victims because we are all one family. If we claim weíre all one body, what impacts one part of the body impacts us all."

VOTF also wants to show support for good priests who have suffered as a result of widespread suspicion of anyone in a Roman collar.

VOTF ultimately hopes to change the structure of the Catholic Church so non-clergy who want to be part of the decisions that shape the church can be heard.

"There is room in the church for a wide range of opinions," Tarpey said. "The scandal helped us all recognize there is a lot of dysfunction in the administration of the church."

To that end, the group encourages people to attend parish council meetings and take note of what their church authorities do. Most churches already post council meeting minutes, DePrey said, and itís up to members to stay informed.

"We want to influence parish councils," she said. "We want to encourage more transparency of council proceedings."

The group also has extended an olive branch to priests throughout Sheboygan County, inviting them to the groupís meetings. So far, only the Rev. Edward Monroe of St. Clement and Holy Name parishes has attended.

Monroe said he supports VOTFís efforts to get help for victims and to take more ownership in its church.

"I feel itís timely," he said. "Clergy abuse triggered in laity (the feeling that) ĎThis is our church, weíre not going to be drummed out, weíre going to hold people accountable.í Vatican II says that people of God are the church. The church, from the top down, is meant to serve the people of God. Itís not a democracy, but a consensus."

And consensus is exactly what VOTF hopes the church eventually will strive for Ė to hear all the voices, not just the ordained.

"Ultimately it comes down to me," Nowicki said. "Iím a member of this church. How can I make a difference? What can I do Ö to help fortify the church, to bring youth back to the church, to have women be more a part of the church? To make it a stronger, more viable, an attractive church for healing, for spiritual life?"


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