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Spotlight Report

Lay group works toward $1m goal

By Christopher Rowland, Globe Staff, 8/2/2002

 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
On the second floor of a nondescript office building in Newton, fund-raisers are working the phones with the goal of raising $1 million. Volunteers sort through piles of contribution checks. Old political hands and reporters drift past a poster depicting James Michael Curley.

The scene resembles the headquarters of a Massachusetts political campaign, except for the freshly printed sign tacked to the door: Voice of the Faithful.

The grass-roots group, founded in a Wellesley church basement in response to the Catholic Church sex abuse crisis, is trying to organize with a paid staff, a concerted fund-raising effort, and a war room where it is mapping a strategy for national growth.

Leading the push is a newly hired executive director, Steven Krueger, a former investment banker and corporate turnaround artist who is applying his organizing skills to the task of challenging the Catholic hierarchy.

Voice of the Faithful began six months ago as an outlet for the outrage generated by news accounts of bishops and cardinals allowing alleged child molester priests to remain in ministry. Then it flexed its muscle last month when it successfully rallied 4,000 Catholics from New England and around the country at a Boston convention.

Now, to build on the group's budding reform movement, it wants to raise $1 million for operating expenses over the next 12 months. It will be a crucial time for the organization, which is walking a fine line as it tries to harness dissatisfaction within the church. Krueger suggested the outcome will be determined in large part by Voice of the Faithful's ability to form and sustain hundreds of chapters throughout the country and the world.

''I can't tell you how many people have come up to us and said, `Please don't give up on this,''' said Krueger. ''We want people to know that Voice of the Faithful is here to stay.''

The organization announced yesterday that it has already accumulated $275,000 in pledges and donations to fuel its growth, including a $100,000 gift from the family of Terence S. Meehan, 54, of New York, the former chairman of Fleet Meehan Specialist Inc.

Meehan grew up Catholic in Manhattan, attended parochial schools and obtained an undergraduate degree from Georgetown University. His Boston connection is his master's degree in architecture from MIT.

When news of the priest scandals broke, Meehan said he was ''moved, shocked, saddened, angry - you run the gamut of feelings.'' News reports about Voice of the Faithful, he said, drew him in ''like a magnet.''

''In the darkest moments, something redemptive will happen,'' said Meehan. ''I don't think it's a time to say, `I'm walking away.' I think its much more of a call to become involved.''

Voice of the Faithful was founded at St. John Parish in Wellesley six months ago. It established a Web site early on and has generated a list of 22,000 e-mail addresses of people interested in membership - including 3,500 new names, it says, since its July 20 convention. Marshal ing those forces promised to be too large a task for the group's volunteer leaders, founder Dr. James Muller, a Nobel Prize-winning cardiologist, and president James Post, a Boston University Management professor.

In Krueger, a Needham native with an MBA from BU, they have an executive director with a background in accounting and management and an extensive knowledge of Catholic Church governance. He is a member of the archdiocesan laity council, an advisory group that offers advice to Cardinal Bernard F. Law.

With hundreds of e-mails, calls, and contribution checks pouring in, Krueger is going about his new work with a grasp of detail and methodical efficiency.

In an interview, he mixed the jargon of corporate boardrooms with tales of outrage from the pews. He spoke of the need to build an in-house ''infrastructure'' to support volunteers in local parishes and he can recite the percentage of Catholic parishes in Brooklyn that lack parish finance councils. But he also is driven by the same passion that seems to infect other Voice of the Faithful adherents when he speaks of the ''hypocrisy of the church.''

''I don't see the connection between power and holiness,'' Krueger said.

Krueger added that he believes Law's rejection of charitable contributions raised by Voice of the Faithful has backfired and is making it easier for the group's challenge to gain momentum.

''I think people have become more sympathetic to our efforts,'' he said. ''It is only going to create more support for the Voice of the Faithful organization.''

Krueger has been joined at the Newton headquarters by Thomas J. White, a one-time political fund-raiser for US Senator John F. Kerry and the late US Representative J. Joseph Moakley, who is putting his skills to use dialing for dollars in a spare office.

Another player with political roots is Ernie Corrigan, a former spokesman for the state transportation department and spokesman for the failed 1990 gubernatorial campaign of Democrat Francis X. Bellotti. Corrigan was helping the Archdiocese of Boston manage the crisis when it first broke in February and March, but he also holds allegiance to St. John, his parish and the first home of Voice of the Faithful. Now he is subletting his Newton office space to the group and has a day-to-day presence in the office, although he said he is not taking a lead role.

''The challenge for the organization is to continue to demonstrate that this is viable,'' Corrigan said, ''that this is not just a flash-in-the-pan movement that will become a trivia question a year from now.''

From the beginning, Voice of the Faithful has had a strong organizational structure. It offers members a template on how to form a parish chapter, including everything from advice on how to hold meetings and how to approach a reluctant pastor, to when to serve refreshments. The template is being dispatched around the country, according to volunteers.

''I just downloaded 13 documents and sent them to a woman in Iowa,'' said volunteer organizer Mary Ann Keyes of Wellesley. ''They don't have approval from their pastor, and they're meeting in the public library.''

The organization has appeared to benefit from its presence in white-collar suburbs, where it counts many professionals among its ranks. Carolyn Disco, a volunteer organizer from Merrimack, N.H., said she was encouraged by the addition of paid staff.

''You need the little church ladies like me,'' she said. '' But you also need the lawyers and accountants.''

Voice of the Faithful has tried to hew to a centrist message, expressing outrage over sex abuse while expressly avoiding the hot-button issues that typically divide Catholics, such as women in the priesthood and celibacy among priests. Its long-term goal is to win ''structural change'' in church governance by forcing cardinals and bishops to share decision-making with the laity. Once the laity has a stronger voice, said Krueger, other issues will inevitably be discussed.

''If we encourage Catholics to talk about their faith with each other all of these things will happen,'' he said.

Dialing phone numbers in a glass-walled office at the new headquarters, White says the fund-raising effort will be huge. The money is needed to help the organization cull through its e-mail database.

''It's more than a brush fire,'' he said of the disillusionment with church leadership. ''The question is how do you channel it? We need to find out where these people are. Where do they want to go? What do they want to do?''

Christopher Rowland can be reached at 508-820-4252 or at crowland@globe.com.

This story ran on page A14 of the Boston Globe on 8/2/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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