Silenced Voices

By Kathleen Durand
Herald News [Fall River MA]
November 2, 2003

Members of Voice of the Faithful in the Fall River Diocese said they are still hoping Bishop George W. Coleman will agree to meet with them for an open dialogue.

On May 22, when he was still bishop-elect, Coleman sent a letter to diocesan priests asking them not to advertise Voice of the Faithful programs, not to appoint contact people to communicate with the group and not to provide the group with meeting space.

Coleman, who became bishop in July, said in the letter that he would take time to study the implications of Voice of the Faithful and its affiliates, given that there are a number of consultative bodies already in the diocese.

"It's still his position," said diocesan spokesman John Kearns. "He's still thinking about it. He said he needed time and he's taking time."

Voice of the Faithful is an international organization founded in Boston in 2002 as a response to the widespread scandal of sexual abuse by priests in the archdiocese and the way the archdiocese covered it up.

VOTF spread to the Fall River Diocese in the spring and there are now a few hundred members, most of them Cape Cod residents. Marie Collamore, a summer resident of the Cape, is regional coordinator for VOTF in the diocese.

Collamore said the group is still waiting for Coleman to respond to an open letter it sent to him on Oct. 12, asking him to meet with its members. The letter, published as an advertisement in The Herald News and other local newspapers, asked the bishop to respond on or before Nov. 15.

"We're struggling because the bishop has banned us from meeting in the parishes and won't let us publish our meeting notices in parish bulletins," Collamore said. "Our members built and maintain the church. This just doesn't make sense. Why are they banning us?"

Collamore said VOTF members were allowed to meet in parish facilities on the Cape until the bishop sent out his letter. Now, she said, they have to pay to rent buildings for their meetings. Collamore, who is a Eucharistic minister, said there are now five VOTF groups in the diocese. Four of them meet on the Cape, in Orleans, Hyannis, Yarmouth and Falmouth, and the fifth has been meeting in Mattapoisett. Fall River area residents have been attending the Mattapoisett meetings.

Collamore said VOTF wants to give victims of sexual abuse by clergy a safe place and offer them help in healing.

"I believe in supporting our bishop," said VOTF member George E. Lee of Somerset. "As he studies and gets to know what Voice of the Faithful is, he may accept us. It?s easy for us to become discouraged, but I think we are hopeful."

The stated goals of VOTF are the following:

- To support those who have been abused

- To support priests of integrity

- To shape cultural changes in the church so that it will be more reflective of the Gospels and more open and accountable

- And to educate the laity by providing information about the Second Vatican Council, clarifying misconceptions about VOTF's mission and building community and fellowship.

Lee, a member of St. Patrick's Parish in Somerset, said VOTF wants to address more than the issue of abusive priests. He said members want the conditions that allowed the cover-up and the lack of openness by the church hierarchy to be addressed.

"You have to get to the basic administrative practices," he said. "We need more transparency."

Lee said VOTF is not trying to change the teaching of the church, just its administrative practices. "It won't be easy at all. We just have to do it. We need to work with the bishop," he said.

Lee said he thinks in time VOTF will be able to work with Coleman. In Brooklyn, N.Y., he said, Bishop Thomas Daley was against VOTF for a long time, and now he lets the group use church property.

"We constantly stress we are not trying to change the doctrines of the church. That?s not our agenda," Lee said.

Estelle Roach of Fall River said she and other VOTF members were disappointed when Coleman did not acknowledge several letters they sent to him, starting in June, asking to meet with him.

Roach said if Coleman met with them, she's sure he would realize that 75 percent of them are active in the church.

"They are not disgruntled people," she said.

She said they are lectors, Eucharistic ministers and other people who are active in their churches.

"Being new and being cautious," she said, Coleman is taking time to decide if he will meet with VOTF, but VOTF is still hopeful a meeting will take place.

"All we really want is to sit down with him," said Robert Gormley of Westport.

Gormley added that Boston Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley, former bishop of Fall River, allows VOTF to hold meetings in church buildings.

Gormley, spokesman for VOTF in the Fall River Diocese, said 60 percent of its parishes do not have parish councils. If the laity had more input at St. Joseph's Church in Woods Hole, Gormley said he?s sure the pastor, the Rev. Bernard R. Kelly, would not have been allowed to hire murder suspect Paul R. Nolin Jr. as a handyman. Nolin, who served 10 years in jail for raping a 10-year-old boy in 1982, is suspected of murdering Jonathan Wessner, 20, whose body was found on Oct. 4. Kelly was suspended by Coleman, who met with parishioners on Oct. 9. But Gormley said there's a big concern that the bishop has not made a public statement about the case.

Gormley said the bishop could calm a lot of the dissatisfaction down if he met with VOTF. "He said in his homily (during his ordination Mass) he wanted to be inclusive. He?s not being inclusive with us," he said.

He said VOTF members are regular churchgoers, not radicals, and many bishops besides O'Malley allow them to hold meetings in their churches. Gormley said members in the Fall River area would like to start a group here so they wouldn?t have to drive to Mattapoisett for meetings.

In their open letter to Coleman, signed by about 120 people, VOTF members said they wish to assist him in restoring the integrity of a church that has been damaged by the sexual abuse of children by priests and employees of the church and the mishandling of the issue by bishops.

"Speak with us. Work with us," they stated. "Open the parish doors to all of your members. Permit us to communicate with each other in the parish bulletins. Assist laymen and -women to communicate within and across parish borders through Voice of the Faithful. Push aside the destructive secrecy. These issues will not go away if they are ignored. We are saddened and horrified by these recent events and the decisions which enabled them, as you yourself must be. Together, let our diocese be a leader in the restoration of trust in our church."

In 1993, James R. Porter, a former priest in the Fall River Diocese, pleaded guilty to 41 counts of sexual assault on 28 children in the 1960s and 1970s. In September 2002, Bristol County District Attorney Paul Walsh released the names of 21 priests who were accused of abuse. Among them were the late Rev. Jose Avila, who allegedly abused numerous children from the early 1930s to the 1980s when he was serving in Taunton, Fall River, East Falmouth and New Bedford.


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