Lay Catholics Issue Call to Transform Their Church

By Michael Paulson
Boston Globe
July 21, 2002

Taking direct aim at the millennia-old power structure of the world's largest religious denomination, some 4,000 Roman Catholics from across the United States gathered in Boston yesterday and vowed to transform a church that they say betrayed them by failing to protect children from sexual abuse.

The members of Voice of the Faithful, a lay reform group born in a church basement in Wellesley just five months ago, used the occasion of their first national convention to begin flexing their collective muscle.

The Rev. Thomas Doyle (second from left), who years ago advised bishops to confront clergy sex abuse, gets a hug after receiving an award at the Voice of the Faithful convention. (Globe Staff Photo / Evan Richman)

They unanimously approved a petition to Pope John Paul II demanding that he hold accountable any bishop who reassigned an abusive priest or concealed such crimes.

They collected money for church ministries, saying they will help finance local charitable missions hurt because many Catholics are unwilling to give money to funds controlled by Cardinal Bernard F. Law, who has been criticized for failing to remove abusive priests from ministry.

They offered prayers and standing ovations for victims, saying their church's spiritual leaders have too often failed to believe or support them.

And they gave an award to a whistle-blowing priest, saying they are taking it upon themselves to honor priests of integrity.

''Today we are asserting our right to participate in the decision-making processes of each parish, each diocese, and the entire church,'' said James E. Post, a Boston University professor of management who serves as president of Voice of the Faithful.

The church has offered no comment on the gathering. Law has assigned his top aide, Bishop Walter J. Edyvean, to meet with the organization's leadership, but has offered neither support nor condemnation of its gathering or its goals. Law's spokeswoman, Donna M. Morrissey, had no comment yesterday.

At yesterday's gathering, thousands of men and women, many of them in late middle-age or older, swarmed through the halls of the Hynes Convention Center, wearing buttons saying ''Survivors First'' and attending workshops on topics such as '' Creating a sexually safe parish,'' '' Who and what will shape the future church,'' and '' The authority for lay participation in governance.'' At large sessions, they repeatedly applauded victims, nonabusive priests, and even grand juries investigating bishops.

Many of those in attendance, urged on by numerous priests, nuns, and theologians at the conference, said they have grown impatient for change nearly 40 years after the Second Vatican Council promised broad church reform. Over and over, they declared their belief that the clergy sex abuse crisis illustrates systemic problems in their church - chiefly an excessively powerful hierarchy and a culture of clericalism.

They claimed an authority for lay people that they said comes from the teachings of Jesus, early church history, and church documents. They repeatedly pointed out that lay people played a role in selecting bishops in the early church and that Vatican II spelled out a greater role for the laity in church life.

Voice of the Faithful leaders said they want to establish chapters in every parish around the world. The group's founder, Nobel Peace Prize-winning cardiologist James E. Muller, declared the need for a lay power structure at the local, national, and global level that would represent the voice of the 1 billion Catholic lay people in discussions with parish priests, bishops, and the pope.

Muller is the architect of the group's determinedly centrist posture. Guided by his insistence, the group has refused to take a position on controversial issues such as priestly celibacy - rather, he said, the group wants to bring together reform-minded and traditional Catholics in an effort to demand that lay people have a voice on key issues.

''The core of the problem is centralized power, with no voice of the faithful,'' Muller said. ''The people of Boston know what to do about absolute power - they showed the world 200 years ago.''

The group says it is already making inroads. In its five months, it has attracted 19,000 supporters via the Internet, including members from 40 states and 21 countries. It has opened an office in Newton, hired an interim executive director, and set about raising money for operating expenses. It claims 78 chapters around the US; yesterday it outlined plans to set up a chapter in Japan.

The group is centered in Boston, where the clergy sexual abuse scandal erupted and where an estimated three-quarters of the metropolitan population is Catholic. Voice of the Faithful is dominated by white suburban Catholics who grew up before Vatican II but is attempting to reach out to the young, to ethnic minorities, and to the poor.

Started as a weekly listening session, the group has shifted to a more activist stance. It has promised to set up a database of abusive priests and to begin evaluating bishops for their compliance with a child protection policy adopted by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops last month.

Perhaps most significantly, the group has begun collecting money.

''No more donation without representation,'' Muller said. ''We have to gain financial power in this church. They say the laity are weak, but we are 99.9 percent of the church and 100 percent of the money, and we now have a structure where we can exert that power.''

Voice of the Faithful has three goals - to support victims of abuse, to support ''priests of integrity,'' and to shape structural change in the church - and its conference was organized to reflect those themes.

A portion of the morning and afternoon sessions focused on victims, including prayers for victims, a video of a local tribute to victims put together by the Coalition of Catholics and Survivors, and speeches by victims.

The leaders of the two major national victim advocacy groups, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests and the Linkup, attended the conference and praised Voice of the Faithful; some individual victims were more skeptical, delivering angry speeches questioning the group's commitment or protesting outside the convention center.

In its effort to support priests, Voice of the Faithful offered an award to the Rev. Thomas P. Doyle, a Dominican priest and canon lawyer who, while working at the Vatican embassy in Washington in the early 1980s, coauthored a report advising US bishops to confront the burgeoning clergy sex abuse crisis. The report was ignored and Doyle's promising career derailed; he joined the Air Force and is now a military chaplain in Germany who spends much of his time working to support victims of clergy sexual abuse.

''What we have experienced in our lifetime is a disaster, the horror of which is perhaps equalled by the bloodshed of the Inquisition, but which certainly makes the indulgence scam of the Reformation pale by comparison,'' Doyle said. ''What we see before us are the beginning death throes of the medieval, monarchical model that was based on the belief that a small, select minority of the educated, privileged, and power-invested was called forth by God to manage the temporal and spiritual lives of the faceless masses.''

Throughout the day, a parade of theologians, church scholars, and lay people called for a significant shift of power in what is now one of the most hierarchical major religious denominations on the globe.

''It is the laity who should be leading the way,'' said sociologist Michele Dillon of the University of New Hampshire. ''We must act now,'' said theologian Francine J. Cardman of the Weston Jesuit School of Theology.

Former Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor Thomas P. O'Neill Jr., son of the late US House speaker, said he had struggled with his own fear at moving from Law's adviser to a supporter of Voice of the Faithful.

''I wasn't raised to be the kind of Catholic who tells bishops or popes something they might not want to hear,'' O'Neill said. ''But all that made the abuse and the coverup possible must change in this church. I don't think anything else will do.''

At least four theologians from Boston College, the premier Catholic educational institution in the Archdiocese of Boston, spoke at the convention. Some of the theologians have advised the group, and the college is promising to devote the next two years to a broad program exploring the many church issues that have been given new currency by the abuse crisis.

''Lack of accountability is not appropriate for a corporation and it is not appropriate for the church of Jesus Christ,'' said Thomas M. Beaudoin, a Boston College theologian, who compared the church's behavior to that of Enron and WorldCom and called on Catholics to ''resist the cheap grace of noninvolvement and pursue the costly grace of reform.''

The Boston College theology chairman, Stephen J. Pope, declared that ''it is a duty of the laity'' to demand that bishops be held accountable and said ''bishops who facilitated this abuse need to be accountable for their negligence.''

Some in attendance wanted the group to go further, circulating a petition calling for Law to resign and urging Catholics to boycott Mass on Sept. 22. Neither effort is supported by Voice of the Faithful, however.

Despite concerns by some Voice of the Faithful leaders that the Archdiocese of Boston might attempt to bar them from celebrating the central ritual of Catholic Christian faith, the group closed its daylong convention with a Mass said by the Rev. William Kremmell, a diocesan priest who serves as chaplain to Regis and Framingham State colleges. Kremmell was clearly unafraid of any repercussions - he opened the Mass by noting that 25 years ago any Catholic convention of this size would have tried to persuade a bishop to celebrate Mass for them - prompting laughter from the crowd; he said that in 25 years, ''hopefully,'' a married woman might be presiding over such a Mass; and he allowed laymen and women to join him in reading the Gospel, a task normally reserved for priests. His homily was greeted with applause when he declared: ''No more abuse.''

Arthur Austin and another convention attendee embrace outside the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. (Globe Staff Photo / Dominic Chavez)

After the Mass, some members of Voice of the Faithful joined victims in a solidarity march to the Cathedral of the Holy Cross.

Michael Paulson can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 7/21/2002.


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