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Spotlight Report

Start the healing with change

By Bella English, Globe Staff, 6/16/2002

They're unlikely revolutionaries, this group sitting in folding chairs at St. Paul's School in Hingham Square. Most are women; many are senior citizens. The majority of them sit quietly and listen. Others raise their hands, and their voices. One elderly man stands and asks if the Archdiocese of Boston is against such meetings.

Tom Coronite of Weymouth replies, and in his answer you can hear echoes of our revolutionary forefathers and imagine them meeting more than 225 years ago, in plain halls just like this one.

"We have the right of assembly," says Coronite, who left the priesthood to marry in 1990. "There are people sitting in pews who are smart, well-spoken and willing to work. Most of all, they care. That's us. We're the ones who need to do this. We should be actively participating and not just sitting and waiting for the church to change."

Obviously, they're not talking about the Church of England, or King George's reign. The South Shore chapter of the Voice of the Faithful, which met at St. Paul's on Tuesday, is seeking to bring grass-roots change to the Catholic Church. An offshoot of the Voice of the Faithful that started last winter at St. John the Evangelist Church in Wellesley, the South Shore chapter is one of several around the country that have sprung up in response to the priest sexual-abuse scandal.

For many Catholics who were raised in the "pay, pray and obey" school of total authority by the hierarchy, the change is refreshing -- and a bit daunting.

"Unfortunately, down here on the conservative South Shore, things aren't happening as quickly as in Wellesley," says Kathy Cerruti, whose Scituate parish has refused to allow a chapter to form.

"I think there's a different mindset on the South Shore. There are a lot of people from South Boston and Dorchester, a lot of Irish Catholics, and they usually toe the line when it comes to the Catholic Church. I come from a long line of them, and we were taught never to question the priest."

But those days are probably forever over; the priesthood and the hierarchy have come under intense questioning in the wake of the scandal. A sleeping giant has been awakened: the Catholic laity. As Kathy Cerruti puts it: "If this doesn't change the church, I don't know what will."

Blue and white bumper stickers expressing the group's philosophy were moving briskly at the meeting: "Keep the Faith -- change the church!" Although some priests have not warmed to the idea of Voice chapters -- they're either afraid of giving up power, or being chastised by the archdiocese -- others welcome the grass-roots movement.

Obviously, the Rev. Jim Rafferty of St. Paul's has given the group his blessing -- and the church facility -- to use. He has preached about the Voice from the pulpit, and has written about it in his bulletins.

"I think their goals are very good," says Rafferty. "They want to help the victims, support the good priests and change what can be changed. There are a lot of talented lay people."

It makes sense that St. Paul's should be at the center of the South Shore healing movement: it was here that two of the more notorious priests preached. In 1994, the Rev. John Hanlon was sentenced to life in prison for raping a 13-year-old boy. And recently, the Rev. John Geoghan, accused of molesting several young boys, was sentenced to nearly 10 years in jail for groping a boy in a swimming pool.

Following "the Protestant model," St. Paul's parishioners will start interviewing priests as well as staff and volunteers, "so that people can feel safe in church," says Eileen Doherty, one of the founders of the church's Voice chapter.

Several of those at the meeting expressed frustration that their priests are resistant to the group. Given the atmosphere in the Boston Archdiocese today, such an attitude seems shamefully shortsighted and selfish. You'd think that priests -- chronically overworked and underpaid, in an era of a severe clerical shortage -- would be glad to turn over some "power" to the people. And isn't such a group a healthy way to express anger -- through positive change?

Then there's the credibility issue: does the particular church have something to hide, or fear, from empowering the people?

If ever there was a "safe" time to stand up to the church hierarchy, this is the time. Shouldn't children, and not the archdiocese, be the ones protected? Members of Voice of the Faithful aren't talking about hot-button issues such as abortion, celibacy or women priests. They're talking about turning a dysfunctional church, one that they love, into a functioning one.

Organizers on the South Shore are hoping that 25 to 50 churches on the South Shore will have Voice chapters.

"We need to start the process of healing; it's going to be a long road," says Doherty. So far, Hingham represents 45 percent of the Voice members meeting at St. Paul's; 12 percent come from Cohasset, 7 percent from Hull and Marshfield.

One problem will be keeping the momentum going. Though the story is hot now, at some point it will cool. Can the laity go the distance? Is the empowerment movement here to stay? Its leaders say yes.

"This is not a lecture series for the short term," says Doherty. "This is a process for years to come. We will never see the church the way it was before. We can't go back there." Enlightened priests doubtless feel the same way, but the archdiocese, it seems, still wants to keep the laity in its place -- the pews.

Doherty's husband, Stan, told the group of some 200 people from all over the South Shore on Tuesday that liberal and conservative Catholic voices are needed in the "centrist" Voice of the Faithful. Eileen Doherty says that by virtue of being Catholic, the faithful have not only a right, but a duty to stop injustice. "If we sit back and don't do anything, that's a form of abuse," she says.

During breakout sessions, Voice leaders told parishioners how to form their own chapters. ("If you have three people, you have a chapter," one said.) Sal Giarratani of North Quincy drew laughter from the crowd when he said he recently sent back his Cardinal's Appeal fund-raising letter with the following words scrawled across it: "The Cardinal Does Not Appeal to Me." He did not include a check.

The South Shore Voice of the Faithful will next meet at 7 p.m. June 26 at St. Paul's School hall, on Fearing Road in Hingham. For more information, contact Eileen or Stan Doherty at sdoherty12@attbi.com.

Bella English writes from Milton. She can be reached at 617-929-8770 or via e-mail at english@globe.com.

This story ran on page S2 of the Boston Globe on 6/16/2002.
Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.


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