Change Comes at Crossroads for Catholics

By Bill Nemitz
Kennebec Journal
June 3, 2012

The year was 1853. Anti-Catholic violence ran so rampant throughout Maine that the Rev. Henry B. Coskery, vicar general of Baltimore, said thanks but no thanks to his appointment as the first Roman Catholic bishop of Portland.

Two years later, the job finally went to Bishop David Bacon, brave man. But even Bacon made sure to arrive here from Brooklyn, N.Y., in the dead of night to lessen the chance of riots.

Which brings us to last week's announcement that Bishop Richard Malone soon will leave Maine for Buffalo -- only the 11th time in more than 150 years that the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland has changed leaders.

And this time -- thank God for small blessings -- it's not the flaming torches that Malone's successor will have to worry about as he moves into the new, 2,918-square-foot bishop's residence in Falmouth.

It's the yawns.

Consider the numbers:

From 2000 through 2011, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Maine's total population rose from 1,274,973 to 1,328,188, an increase of 4 percent.

Not so for Maine's Roman Catholics.

According to the Association of Religious Data Archives at Penn State University, Maine had 283,024 Catholics in 2000. Today, according to the diocese, that number is 187,306 -- a drop of just less than 34 percent.

Put more simply, 22 out of every 100 Mainers considered themselves Catholics at the start of the millennium. Just over a decade later, that ratio has dwindled to 14 out of 100.

It gets worse.

According to the diocese's financial reports, parish collections (also known as freewill offerings) have fallen almost 12 percent, from $30.5 million in 2005 to $26.9 million in 2011.

(Over the same period, the diocese has paid out just more than $4 million in "costs for sexual abuse" by its priests, including just less than $3 million in settlements with victims.)

The litany goes on: Priests, parishes, parochial schools -- all down. Deficits, dissent and defection to other denominations, all on the increase.

Which brings us to this Sunday's question: What, if anything, can Maine's next bishop do to reverse (or at least slow) this steepening slide for what is still, according to ARDA, the state's dominant religion?

"I was just sitting down to write a letter to the editor about that!" exclaimed Doris Buonomo of Saco in a telephone interview on Friday.

Buonomo, 84 ("but I feel like 34"), describes herself as a still-active but "not a very happy Catholic."

She attended Catholic schools right through college and more recently led the Maine chapter of Voice of the Faithful, a worldwide group of lay Catholics that grew out of the sex-abuse scandals and now advocates for a variety of structural changes within the Roman Catholic hierarchy.

Her advice for the next bishop?

"Be more responsive and open to dialogue with the laity," replied Buonomo.

Back when the sex abuse scandal broke wide open in Maine around 2002, Buonomo recalls, she and her fellow parishioners at Most Holy Trinity Parish in Saco met more than once with their priest to ask questions, express their dismay and otherwise cope with news that would forever change their view of the church and the men who run it.

"Parishioners were able to ask questions, voice their concerns," she recalled. "I was allowed to summarize the deliberations and they were even published in the weekly bulletin."

But those days are long gone, said Buonomo. So is the Maine chapter of Voice of the Faithful -- Buonomo and other leaders eventually gave up trying to engage Malone and the rest of the diocesan hierarchy in conversations not only about the sex abuse scandal, but also on allowing women into the priesthood, making celibacy optional for priests and preserving the reforms of the church's Second Vatican Council under Pope John XXIII.

Two of Buonomo's latest peeves: Pope Benedict XVI's recent rollback of the English Mass liturgy to a more formal interpretation of the original Latin, as well as the Vatican's recent condemnation of American nuns for what the Vatican calls the "promotion of feminism" and other views that "disagree with or challenge the bishops."

Buonomo is still trying to understand why church leaders, Malone included, remain so reluctant to release the names and whereabouts of all current and past priests who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse.

Yet, she said, "they now choose to investigate the nuns. To question whether (the nuns) are really following the message of Jesus is the biggest insult I could think of. It's just unbelievable."

Speaking of nuns, Sister Maureen, one of 58 Sisters of the Good Shepherd still living and doing God's work in Maine, said in a separate interview Friday that she thinks Malone was "the perfect bishop for our time" during his eight years here.

That said, Sister Maureen shares Buonomo's dismay that she and her fellow nuns are now on the Vatican's hot seat. And that in today's Roman Catholic Church, lay people (which the good sisters in fact are) "don't have a way to express how they feel."

"They might talk about things with each other," noted Sister Maureen, who, since she joined her order 1969, has watched two of her colleagues leave and go on to become Episcopal priests. "But they perhaps don't feel as free to speak to those who are in the hierarchy."

Her preference in a new bishop?

"Other than being Christ-like, which we all should be, someone who is a good listener," Sister Maureen replied. "Because in these times, there have been a lot of changes."

Buonomo and Sister Maureen also agree that the selection of a new bishop, now an anything-but-democratic process conducted at the uppermost levels of the church hierarchy, should include an opportunity for the laity at least to be heard.

"If we're able to go back in time and pluck different words for today's liturgy," noted Buonomo, "then I think we should go back to the early church, which allowed lay people to participate in the choice of bishop."

Echoed Sister Maureen, "At least they'd get some input."

That, at least for now, might be easier said than done.

Repeated calls to the diocese Friday went directly to voice mail - and none of the multiple messages were returned.

Ditto for the rings of the doorbell at the Chancery Office on Ocean Avenue in Portland, where visitors were greeted by a handwritten sign posted just inside the vestibule.

"This door is now locked," it said.

In more ways than one.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at








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