The Boston Globe | Abuse in the Catholic Church

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Catholics drawn to lay group in Wellesley

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 5/1/2002

WELLESLEY - In the basement of a parish school at Saint John the Evangelist Church, a quiet revolution is brewing.

A group that started three months ago as a listening session for parishioners upset about clergy sexual abuse has grown explosively in the past few weeks, drawing about 4,200 supporters from 36 states and 19 countries.

Each Monday night, hundreds of people are packing the Wellesley Hills church, so many that they can no longer fit into the school basement, so many that the group, called Voice of the Faithful, is starting to meet several nights a week and is considering finding a new home. Hundreds of thousands of computer users are visiting the group's Web site, including some from Vatican City, and dozens of simultaneous debates and discussions are raging on the group's electronic bulletin boards.

One of Cardinal Bernard F. Law's former spokesmen has joined, as have numerous parish council members, religious education teachers, lectors, eucharistic ministers, and other church activists. A handful of nuns have begun appearing at the group's meetings, and some priests are sending supportive e-mails.

The all-volunteer group is incorporating as a nonprofit so it can raise money for Catholic causes independently from Law, is preparing to hire a full-time staff, and is working to establish chapters around the nation.

''If I had a dream of what this would look like three years from now, our enrollment would be half of the Catholics in the world, every parish would have a chapter, and every diocese, every nation, and the world would, too, and that organization would be a counterbalance to the power of the hierarchy - it would have a permanent role, a bit like Congress,'' said Dr. James E. Muller of Newton, president of the group. The last time Muller took on such a daunting task - preventing nuclear war between the superpowers - he shared a Nobel Peace Prize.

''My nightmare scenario is that the church successfully papers over the clergy sexual abuse problem and leaves intact an abusive power structure,'' he said. ''That's why we're moving so fast, why we're meeting three times a week now. Because we know we have to seize the moment.''

The group is animated by a simple slogan, ''Keep the Faith, Change the Church,'' and a 25-word mission statement, ''To provide a prayerful voice, attentive to the Spirit, through which the Faithful can actively participate in the governance and guidance of the Catholic Church,'' that took weeks of painstaking negotiation.

It started out with small gestures - a group of women from the Wellesley parish wore red jackets to the Archdiocese of Boston convocation, a gathering of parish lay leaders in March, to demonstrate their sorrow. But members are rapidly stepping up their pace, including an attempt to find a way, under the leadership of a Boston University management professor, James E. Post, to exert financial pressure on the church. The group is relying heavily on its Internet site (www.votf.org) to facilitate communication, but it has also rented the Hynes Veterans Memorial Convention Center in Boston for a July 20 convention they hope will draw 5,000 people from across the nation.

''There have always been people on the activist agenda who have wanted to change the church, either on the left or on the right, and who haven't had much impact. But this crisis has moved the broad middle of the church, people who have been pretty content and have been complacent,'' said Stephen J. Pope, chairman of Boston College's theology department. ''There are a lot of mainstream, middle-of-the road Cathlics who are feeling called to be active in the church in a new way, and that's one of the significant elements of this crisis.''

Pope addressed the group this week, along with two Nobel laureates and a victim of clergy sexual abuse. Pope urged the organization ''not to be heretics, usurpers, or schismatics, but for the good of the church.'' He dismissed concerns expressed by Law that lay groups might provoke divisiveness, and said ''the state of division already exists within the archdiocese.'' He said some laypeople are now contemplating the withdrawal of all financial support in an effort to pressure priests to pressure the bishops.

''I love the Catholic Church, but our fatal flaw has been the passivity of the laity,'' Pope said, to wide applause. ''This event is finally getting laypeople off the stick, and that is valuable.''

Law has sent mixed signals about his interest in supporting lay activism. He has spoken out several times in support of an increased role for the laity, but last week he attempted to squelch an effort to organize an association of parish pastoral councils. His spokeswoman, Donna M. Morrissey, did not return a telephone call yesterday seeking comment.

The obstacles to the group's influence are enormous. Neither the Vatican nor the American bishops have expressed any support for structural change in the church as a result of the clergy sexual abuse crisis, preferring to debate targeted steps to make sure that priests who molest children are removed from ministry and prosecuted. And the group faces organizational challenges as well as the danger that the public energy may not be sustainable.

The group is determined, at this stage, to avoid taking positions on controversial questions such as the ordination of women. The group is consciously trying to distance itself from a raft of liberal reform groups that have sprung up over the years and have little influence in the church, and from the handful of protest groups that have been formed in the last few months to stage demonstrations against Law.

The group's membership seems to share broad anger at the hierarchy. At a meeting several weeks ago, 94 percent of the people surveyed said Law should resign; 89 percent of those surveyed said they do not intend to contribute to the Cardinal's Appeal, an annual fund-raiser for the archdiocese's operating budget that will be held this weekend.

The group's weekly gatherings have taken on the tone of revival meetings, with a charismatic emcee, Mary Scanlon Calcaterra, who is prone to shouting things like ''Praise the Lord'' after someone gets up to give personal testimony.

This week, the group heard from a nun, Sister John Julie of the Sisters of Notre Dame, who told the group she was tired of seeing photos only of men in the Boston Catholic Directory.

''When I heard about Voice of the Faithful, I knew this was the new picture, and I wanted to be in this one,'' she said.

And the group heard from Phil Saviano, the New England director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, who said after 10 years of speaking out about his own molestation, Monday night was ''the first time I have ever been asked by any group of parishioners to come say hello.''

The original members were Wellesley parishioners like Luise Cahill Dittrich, a 56-year-old marketing consultant who says she was anguished when she first read about child molestation by the Rev. John J. Geoghan and thought her own son could have been a victim.

''We started as a group of heartbroken people who needed to talk,'' she said. ''If we didn't have some mechanism for seeking justice, I don't know if I could stay in this church right now.''

Dittrich said Voice of the Faithful has already succeeded by providing an outlet for upset Catholics, but she hopes it will do much more.

''We're trying to save the hierarchy from itself, from its own insularity, its own tendency to secrecy, its own medievalism, by bringing in the laity - with our ideas,'' she said. ''They need us. They don't know how to police themselves.''

Among the members of the group's steering committee is Ernest J. Corrigan, who until recently was one of Law's public relations consultants. But Corrigan is also a St. John's parishioner who has sent all four of his children to the parish school in which Voice of the Faithful now meets.

''I really believe that the cardinal ought to embrace what this organization is trying to accomplish, because it espouses many of the things that he has talked about himself, such as the need for the laity to be more involved in the life of the church,'' Corrigan said.

The group has tried unsuccessfully to set up a meeting with Law, and is now trying to meet with his vicar general.

''It's amazing to see the amount of people coming to these meetings and to hear their comments, and at the end of the day, it's the same message: `We want to be heard. We want to be part of the process for change,`'' said Gisela Morales-Barreto, a 48-year-old psychologist and a parishioner at Our Lady Help of Christians Church in Newton.

''I don't know what's going to happen in the end, but this is a very important time. ... these sexual abuse victims endured horrific pain and trauma, and the good that is coming out of it is people coming together to support them and look for change in the church while keeping faith alive.''

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 5/1/2002.
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