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Spotlight Report

Small group has big goals

By Thomas Farragher, Globe Staff, 7/21/2002

 Related stories
Laity issues call for change

 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

There were few firebrands among them. Most were soft-spoken men and women with gray hair and conservative clothing who had come to Boston from Catholic parishes around the nation. But they wanted their religious leaders to know the drumbeat for change that rumbled through the Hynes Convention Center yesterday was only the beginning.

''This has been percolating for a long time,'' said Kathleen Elia, 58, of Mashpee, who was among 4,000 people who attended the Voice of the Faithful's first national conference. ''There is not a hope of it going away. We want the back of this clergy power structure broken to get back to what Christ meant it to be, which is a serving ministry.''

Using a familiar gospel parable, Elia said the movement begun this year in Boston will not lose steam as summer fades into autumn, or as the glare of the national media spotlight shifts its attention elsewhere.

''We're planting a seed here,'' said Elia, a parishioner at Christ the King Church. ''Jesus said that some seeds fall on barren ground and dry up for lack of water. We're going to be the fertile soil that that seed is planted in. There's not any way to stop this.''

If they are frustrated by the relatively modest agenda set by a group which sprang from a Wellesley church basement just five months ago, many conference attendees did not voice it. Instead, they said the group's decision to work from within the church to argue for a greater role for lay people in the church is deceptively simple and strategically shrewd.

''I'm a moderate, so this is ambitious enough for me,'' said Sharon Powers, 48, of St. Dorothy Church in Wilmington. ''I'm not extreme. I think our power is in the fact that our voices are from the parishes and, therefore, intimate enough, and that's where the change will come. If you try to get too ambitious, try to go too global, you lose the power. I think the church is hearing, and they will have to listen to us.''

Scott Ewing, 45, of South Portland, Maine, said he made the trip to Boston yesterday after hearing the searing accounts of victims of clergy sexual abuse. Ewing said the group's efforts to work within the existing church hierarchy means it cannot be marginalized or dismissed as a collection of misguided zealots.

 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

''I think that's the right way to go,'' said Ewing. ''There are a lot of priests and bishops and cardinals who feel that this is going to blow over, but there is enough strength and interest to keep this going. We do have to work from the bottom up, starting at the parish level and moving up to a diocesan and national level.

''There are a lot of Catholics who go to church for 50 minutes a week and that's their involvement in the church. And as long as there's a priest there to give the Eucharist, they're happy. That's wrong. We are the church.''

As they convened in small groups to consider how to build a safe parish, how to best help victims heal, and how to acquire the greater clout they seek, participants were cheered on by the victims of sexual abuse who called yesterday's session a major event in the life of the US Catholic Church.

''The landscape is littered with the carnage of lost souls from sex abuse by priests and you can't stop this snowball that is now going down the hill,'' said Mark V. Serrano, a board member of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

''Every time we get a new chance to speak, a new victim picks up the phone to a prosecutor, or a friend, and that's why this will keep going,'' said Serrano, of Leesburg, Va., who said he was sexually abused by his pastor for seven years, beginning in 1974 when he was 9. ''The stories keep coming. What we're recommending to the Voice of the Faithful is this: Don't succumb to the pressure to be more specific or to delineate all of your positions. Just focus on growing and organizing as quickly and as broadly as you can. The rest of it will come naturally.''

Gary Bergeron of Lowell, who says he was repeatedly molested by the Rev. Joseph Birmingham in the mid-1970s at St. Michael's Church, said the Voice of the Faithful's power lies in its wish to repair the church, not dismantle it.

Bergeron, who said he spoke with Cardinal Bernard F. Law at the chancery in Brighton for two hours last week and received an apology from him, said: ''I believe in the fundamental fact that good will overcome evil. And what is happening here is good. These people are making a difference in my life because their strength and their support has helped me greatly.''

As she cradled her 6-month-old daughter in her arms, 30-year-old Jana Jones of Healdsburg, Calif., said if her church can be persuaded to surrender more authority to parishioners, it will be a crucial shift in a preeminently hierarchical institution.

''The simplicity of this movement is the simplicity of the gospel itself,'' said Jones. ''There's been a breach of trust and it's essential that that breach be repaired.''

Asked why she made the cross-country trip with an infant, Jones replied: ''I wouldn't be here if I didn't have two daughters. I feel like I have to be a forerunner for them.''

This story ran on page A24 of the Boston Globe on 7/21/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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