Voice of the Faithful
By Lois H. Alcosser
The Wilton Bulletin [Connecticut]
February 9, 2006
Voice of the Faithful in the Diocese of Bridgeport, an organization of Fairfield County Catholics who call themselves "mainstream" parishioners interested in protecting children and holding their church leaders accountable, are often dismissed as a fringe group of extremists by church leaders and fellow parishioners, if talked about openly at all. Now the controversial group's push for changes that are challenging centuries-old church practices, such as giving parishioners more control over church finances and the appointment of bishops and priests, are meeting similar disdain.
Mentioning Voice of the Faithful and its aims to Catholics in Wilton and other parts of Fairfield County evokes a wide range of responses from guarded comments, to hopeful enthusiasm and outright antagonism. Currently, the diocese forbids the group's members to meet in any Catholic church in the diocese. The area group holds monthly meetings at the Congregational Church on the Green in Norwalk.
With the slogan "Keep the Faith, Change the Church," VOTF came into being as a lay organization in January 2002 in Wellesley, Mass., in response to the regional and later national crises of numerous cases of sexual abuse of altar boys and other children by priests, and to charges that the church hierarchy failed to act and protect children from abusive priests. Locally, a meeting was held at St. Jerome's Church in Norwalk, and two church members, Joseph Callahan, a retired Fordham University professor, and Jim Alvord of Norwalk went to Massachusetts and returned to initiate VOTF in the Diocese of Bridgeport.
Stressing the idea that they are "mainstream Catholics" the group's top goals are to support the survivors of abuse, support priests of integrity and to shape structural change in church practices, giving greater power to the laity.
The latter goal has become VOTF's major mission in 2006, with the basic premise that the election of bishops should be by the people of the diocese, not appointed in Rome by the pope. Parishioners should also have the right to participate with their bishop in the selection of pastors, the group says. VOTF wants pastoral and financial councils in every parish, and these councils to be elected by parishioners, giving each parish responsibility for managing parish finances, owning church property and governing the parish. All this is intended to transfer power from the current church hierarchy to the laity.
Dr. Joseph McAleer, editor of the Fairfield County Catholic, a newspaper published by the Diocese of Bridgeport, preferred not to comment about VOTF, though he did say "We're opposed to its agenda."
Father Michael Palmer, longtime pastor of Our Lady of Fatima Church in Wilton, said he didn't feel qualified to say much about VOTF. When asked his opinion about VOTF's goal of making the laity more responsible in running parishes, he said, "Yes, but they have a much bigger agenda. They are trying to change the structure of a church that has centuries of tradition."
Wiltonian Tony Wiggins, formerly a member of OLF, and now a member of St. Jerome's in Norwalk, is an outspoken advocate of VOTF and chairman of the local chapter. He points to the rapid growth of VOTF.
According to the group's Web site (votf.org), VOTF started with 30 members and has grown to "over 25,000 registered supporters throughout 40 states and 21 countries worldwide."
Free elections of bishops, instead of by papal appointment, would bring democracy to the church, Mr. Wiggins believes. "There was $37,700,000 in compensation to the survivors of abuse paid out by the Bridgeport Diocese," he said, "but there's no records. Where did the money come from? With bishops reporting only to the Pope, there's nobody monitoring locally."
The average cost of the settlements to each parish in the Bridgeport Diocese, according to the area group's Web site (votfbpt.org) "is $433,000 ... Bridgeport is in the top ten of 195 dioceses nationally in terms of settlement costs."
Among various Catholics in Wilton, there is a spectrum of reactions, from Fred Sindel and Maria Heller knowing very little about VOTF and its goals, to Jerry Holdridge, who is quite knowledgeable about the group, but hasn't joined. "I know it's considered an underground organization. They can't meet in any Catholic churches, but Knights of Columbus meets in churches, they have raffles and bingo, why not VOTF?"
But Mr. Holdridge agreed there are many serious issues. "They're recommending that instead of the Bishop's Appeal, people should donate directly to causes they believe in." When Ms. Heller was told VOTF wanted pastors and bishops elected by parishioners, she commented, "Oh, like the Protestants?"
Tom Briody was one Catholic who didn't know much about the group and their aims, and said he was too busy with other matters to care very much about them. And Frank Maguire said he was vaguely familiar with VOTF but wanted no part of it. "I'm not so sure I like their methods," he said.
This past Thursday, the VOTF held its monthly meeting. Dr. Constance Lawrence of the Christian Counseling Center spoke about her organization's work in providing counseling and support for those in need, including survivors of sexual abuse. Mr. Callahan, the retired professor who started the local chapter, reported on the meeting. "Dr. Lawrence didn't speak specifically about abuse by priests, but in broad terms, from a scriptural perspective.
"But our main focus now is changing the way bishops are elected, to have every diocese select candidates," he said.
The meeting also covered ways to decrease the isolation of seminarians, who tend to be disconnected to the real world, according to VOTF.
VOTF in the Diocese of Bridgeport formed a fund two years ago called Voice of Compassion, which raises money for causes the group deems worthy. VOTF members say this fund is an alternative to the Bishop's Appeal, and a means to achieve financial accountability and give the responsibility of charitable contributions to parishioners.
Mr. Alvord, who is very active in VOTF, says that he hopes for more openness, accountability and financial transparency from the Catholic Church. "VOTF doesn't have flyers in any of the churches, we're not allowed to use church bulletins, we don't want to get into an ugly situation, but we're trying to right a wrong."
Recognizing that VOTF is considered a fringe, underground group by the hierarchy, he wondered why the church won't accept VOTF as loving and charitable. He also believes that "when the first news of sexual abuse by priests occurred, the cardinal (in the Boston Diocese) should have been rooted out because of errors on his watch. There should have been an open trial instead of having the subject smothered."
Sue Wall is one of the Wilton Catholics who professes to have no opinion about VOTF. She believes they're "somewhat radical" but has also heard "they've done some good."
Dr. McAleer, proud that Catholics make up 44% of the nation's population, emphasized the achievements of the established church and dismisses VOTF, saying he believes they have fewer than 50 members locally. VOTF leaders claim they have 250 members locally.
Recently, members of Our Lady of Fatima reported a circular being distributed by the Connecticut Catholic Advocacy Network, with "topics of interest for people of faith," urging Catholics to sign up and affirm that "The gospel is alive." Connecticut Catholic Advocacy is a powerful lobby group, upholding the basic stands of Roman Catholicism, and maintaining the church structure that has been in existence for centuries.
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