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Spotlight Report

Lay leaders express caution, optimism

Congregations feel church's actions must match words

By Corey Dade and Matt Carroll, Globe Staff, 4/25/2002

 Text
Statement released by church
Letter released by US cardinals

 Related stories
Cardinals offer policy on abuse
Analysis: Some left disappointed
Lay leaders express optimism

 In-depth
A small gathering of Boston-area Catholics grew into Voice of the Faithful, a nationwide lay reform group.  
Coverage of Voice of the Faithful

The summit between American Catholic leaders and Vatican officials struck many of the church's lay leaders in the Boston area yesterday as an encouraging sign that could help spur reforms, including a much tougher policy for priests who sexually abuse minors.

The lay leaders and church activists said they hope the two days of meetings in Rome, called by Pope John Paul II, has set the stage for the annual conference of US bishops in June, where the lay leaders and activists want sweeping changes adopted in addition to the sexual abuse policy.

In a news conference yesterday from the Vatican, the US clergy announced they will recommend moving more quickly to defrock any priest who has become a ''serial predator'' of minors, but they stopped short of a zero-tolerance policy to dismiss all abusive priests. The church leaders will also ask the US Conference of Catholic Bishops at their June meeting to approve national standards in abuse cases that will be imposed on every bishop and diocese. Each diocese now acts autonomously when such cases arise.

While optimistic, Boston-area activists insist the cardinals and bishops failed this week to address the parochialism that prevents civilians from assuming greater roles in the church and helping it to overcome its systemic problems.

''It's a great first step to fixing something that should have been fixed 20 years ago,'' said Paul Baier, 36, a parishioner at St. John the Evangelist in Wellesley and member of Voice of the Faithful, an activist group formed last month in response to the sexual abuse scandal. ''But a policy of one strike and you're out behind closed doors doesn't get us comfortable that the church is safe for our children and grandchildren.''

Mary Jane England, one of 15 members of Cardinal Bernard F. Law's Commission for the Protection of Children, which is working to improve the church's child-protection policies, said what is more important is how any procedures for dealing with priestly sexual abuse are implemented, which she said is the job of the commission.

Missing from the Vatican news conference yesterday were 10 of the 12 US cardinals, including Law. With the spotlight glaring on him, activists said, Law's absence was conspicuous but did not influence their opinions of the summit, although many of them said they have lost faith in his leadership.

''I actually don't think he should have been there because, had he been there, he would have been the complete focus of attention,'' said Mary Jo Bane, a lector and member of the parish council at St. William in Dorchester. ''It doesn't strike me particularly as a mistake for him not to be there.''

Matters that Bane and others hoped would have been addressed include homosexual priests, church closings, and the decline in fund-raising. These are systemic problems, they said, and must be attacked with the help of civilians with relevant expertise.

Even if the issues are taken up at the June conference, the status quo in the church could render any remedies unenforceable, said Barbara Blaine of Chicago, a cofounder of SNAP, an organization dedicated to those abused by priests.

''Historically, there has been and there remains a huge gap between what bishops say and what bishops do,'' Blaine said in an e-mail to the Globe. ''Their promises sound good, but their performance is lacking.''

While opinion polls of Boston-area Catholics have revealed an overwhelming sentiment that Law step down, lay leaders at St. Bernard parish in West Newton nonetheless decided two weeks ago to survey their own congregation. On Sunday, the results showed that three-quarters of 457 parishioners who responded said Law should step down.

''My great hope is that the laity will speak loud and clear,'' said Martha Rowland, a parish council member at St. Bernard who helped conduct the poll. ''The people are the church. The church is not the building; the church is not the clergy, and the church is certainly not the hierarchy.''

Corey Dade can be reached at dade@globe.com. Matt Carroll can be reached at mcarroll@globe.com. Correspondent Andrew C. Helman contributed to this report.

This story ran on page A26 of the Boston Globe on 4/25/2002.
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