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Spotlight Report

Ministers reaching out to Catholics

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 12/8/2002


The Rev. Victoria Weinstein of Norwell's First Parish Unitarian Church has advised disheartened Catholics to grieve together. (Globe Staff Photo / Jonathan Wiggs)


The Rev. Richard Simeone of St. John's Episcopal Church in Gloucester decided to invite a Catholic group to meet at the church. (Globe Staff Photo / Tom Herde)
The same day the news broke that Cardinal Bernard F. Law was barring archdiocesan meetings from taking place at Our Lady Help of Christians Church in Newton, the phone started ringing in the Rev. Walter H. Cuenin's office.

Three times that day, Protestant ministers called, offering their churches for use as needed.

Cuenin didn't need the help. The outspoken pastor, who believes he is being punished for his efforts to organize unhappy priests, decided the new policy didn't apply to a planned gathering of dozens of local clerics at his parish hall. But the offers last week were indicative of a dramatic but unheralded development in Catholic-Protestant relations this year.

Throughout the last 12 months, as the Catholic Church has struggled with the crisis prompted by revelations that Law and other bishops routinely kept sexually abusive priests on the job, Protestant ministers have been quietly reaching out, not to their fellow church leaders, but to embattled Catholic clergy and irate Catholic laypeople.

In every community around the country in which bishops have banned Voice of the Faithful from holding meetings, at least one Protestant minister has stepped forward to offer to house the gatherings. And even in communities where the lay group of about 25,000 people upset about the church's handling of abusive priests is not banned, some Protestant clergy have called to see if there is anything they can do.

"Without wanting to get involved in the internal decisions of another denomination, by offering our facility to Voice of the Faithful we are responding to God's calling to advocate for the powerless as best we understand it," said the Rev. Richard Weidler, pastor of Woodfords Congregational Church, a United Church of Christ church in Portland, Maine. Weidler's church hosted a Voice of the Faithful meeting featuring a Catholic priest as guest speaker, after the group was barred from meeting in Catholic churches by Bishop Joseph J. Gerry. "The scandal in the Roman Catholic Church is a significant justice issue for all people of faith," Weidler said.

Voice of the Faithful affiliates are meeting in a Quaker meeting house in Wellesley, in an Episcopal church in Gloucester, and in Protestant churches in Connecticut and Maine.

This development has gone largely unnoticed, in large part because it is taking place generally without the explicit support of Protestant leaders, who have almost universally refused to say anything about the Catholic Church crisis.

Just last week, the Rev. Diane C. Kessler, the executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, said, "I'm keeping the position I've had consistently -- that I do not comment on the internal challenges of individual churches. I don't think there's anything to be gained by changing that position." Bishop M. Thomas Shaw of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts refuses even to come to the phone if the subject is the Catholic Church, while the Rev. William G. Sinkford, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, declares, "I'm reluctant to cast stones."

But at the local level, some clergy seem to feel no such inhibitions.

As soon as a Catholic auxiliary bishop banned a Voice of the Faithful affiliate from meeting at a North Andover church, the local Unitarian Universalist minister offered space in her church, with its prime location on the town common. And then the Episcopal priest called, offering his parish hall.

In Newton, a news report on public radio profiling Voice of the Faithful caused a United Church of Christ minister to e-mail the group to offer his help, while in Norwell, a Unitarian Universalist minister saw a story in the paper and volunteered her assistance.

The cooperative spirit is remarkable in that it seems to suggest the practical effect that the ecumenical movement of the 20th century has had on how Catholics and members of other religious denominations interact, even as their leaders fret about whether movement toward formal reconciliation among Christian denominations has stalled.

"I'm old enough to remember when we were banned from entering Protestant churches, but those days are long gone, and it doesn't bother me now," said Barbara A. Viechnicki of Wellesley, a Boston College associate dean who, after 33 years as an active member of St. Paul's parish in Wellesley, now finds herself meeting with fellow parishioners at the Quaker meeting house in Wellesley because Voice of the Faithful is barred from her church. She said the St. Paul's group at first avoided non-Catholic churches, meeting at Wellesley Town Hall, but when they were unable to book the hall regularly, they chose the local Quaker meeting house.

"It's an affront, as a Catholic, to have to go outside the church to meet, especially when what we're meeting about is very closely tied to our own church," Viechnicki said. "We would like to be in our own parish hall."

The Protestant outreach is also unusual in that the clergy, drawn in part from more liberal, mainline denominations, say they are not seeking to persuade Catholics to join their churches. Most Protestant denominations in Massachusetts already contain sizable numbers of former Catholics, and some Catholics have indeed left their church because of this year's crisis, but Protestant clergy insist they are not trying to exploit the scandal.

"There are certain ways in which staying out of it could benefit Protestant churches, as people become disillusioned and leave the Catholic Church, but I would rather see the Roman Catholic Church address the issues within their own community," said the Rev. Richard Malmberg, pastor of Second Church, a United Church of Christ church in Newton. "I come from a denomination that stresses the fact that everyone who confesses faith in Jesus Christ is already of one church. We believe there is one catholic church, and we're part of that, too, and that's what motivates me to act in ways that are supportive of other traditions."

The Rev. Richard J. Simeone, rector of St. John's Episcopal Church in Gloucester, even consulted with wardens of his church before deciding to invite a Cape Ann affiliate of Voice of the Faithful to meet there.

"They had nowhere to go, so we invited them in, in an act of Christian fellowship," Simeone said. "I told them, `I hope some day we can say goodbye to you because you're going back to one of your own parishes.' But for now we want them to have a home and to feel comfortable."

And the Rev. Victoria Weinstein, minister of First Parish Unitarian Church in Norwell, said she has actually discouraged Catholics from joining her church.

"I applaud the laypeople for their courage in confronting what is broken in their system, but I have sent wounded Catholics back to their church," she said. "I have said, `It doesn't sound to me like religiously you're a Unitarian Universalist. You're a very brokenhearted Catholic, and I recommend you join with other brokenhearted Catholics to do the grief work and the healing, because that may be richer than abandoning your church."'

Protestant clergy trace their theological roots back 500 years to an unhappy Catholic, Martin Luther, who sparked the Reformation that split Western Christianity into Catholicism and Protestantism. Today, many acknowledge that, in a situation where many Catholic laypeople are unhappy with their hierarchy, the Protestants' sympathy is with the laity.

"Most of the churches were in sympathy with Voice of the Faithful, as opposed to the hierarchy, since we don't come from that kind of hierarchical church," said the Rev. Alexander S. Daley, rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in North Andover, who offered to host a Voice of the Faithful meeting when the group was briefly banned from the Catholic church there. "If it's a revolutionary group, you would think twice, but in this case we knew them, and thought their cause was just."

Some Protestant clergy have agonized about whether to allow Voice of the Faithful to meet on their property because they wanted to avoid harm to local Catholic-Protestant relations. Many Protestant ministers are friendly with their Catholic counterparts through clergy associations.

"We get along very well with our Roman Catholic friends, and I wanted to make sure that we were not going to do something that would jeopardize that relationship, so I called around a bit to see if it would be offensive," said the Rev. Jeffrey H. Walker, rector of Christ Church, an Episcopal parish in Greenwich, Conn. "But with the great deal of pain these people are in, we thought it was the right thing to do. They asked to meet here because they're not allowed to meet somewhere else by the bishop of Bridgeport, and it is our hope that if they can find a place to meet they can bring some reconciliation in the future of the Catholic Church."

Leaders of Voice of the Faithful are conflicted about how to respond to Protestant clergy. Voice of the Faithful has been banned from meeting in Catholic churches in seven dioceses, as well as in any parishes in the Archdiocese of Boston that did not have a Voice of the Faithful affiliate by Oct. 12. The group's national officials, based in Newton, say they have no problem with local affiliates meeting in Protestant churches.

"The fact is, these [Protestant churches] are our brothers and sisters, and they've shown a lot more fortitude and compassion and tolerance than our own church," said Luise Cahill Dittrich, a Voice of the Faithful spokeswoman. "We are not afraid of the company we keep, and we are grateful that they have taken us in. But if we wanted to be Protestant we would be Protestant -- it's pretty clear this movement is Catholic."

But some local leaders around the nation fear meeting on Protestant property will give ammunition to critics who have portrayed Voice of the Faithful as disloyal to their church.

"We came to a consensus that we would avoid meeting in Protestant churches, because we want to go out of our way to make sure we're not sending a message that people in Voice of the Faithful are dissidents, or in any way divisive," said Sheila Peiffer, regional coordinator of Voice of the Faithful on Long Island.

In Maine, statewide Voice of the Faithful coordinator Michael J. Sweatt expressed a similar concern. "Some of our members don't want to be seen as a group willing to go to other denominations -- willing to be pushed out -- and a lot of Catholics aren't comfortable meeting in non-Catholic facilities," he said.

And in New Jersey, Voice of the Faithful leader Kevin Gemmell said the Camden affiliate "didn't want there to be any hint that we're going to another church. We realized that might backfire on us, so we wanted to pick a secular environment."

But, in an indication of how non-threatening Catholic-Protestant relations have become, Voice of the Faithful's leading critic, the conservative group Faithful Voice, is not concerned about the issue.

"The problem is not where they meet," said Faithful Voice spokeswoman Carol McKinley. "I don't see this affecting them one way or the other. The real problem is that they've been taught our faith improperly."

So, many Voice of the Faithful members are just accepting the offers of help.

"Naturally, as a Catholic I would be more comfortable in my own parish, but that's not possible," said Thomas A. Malarkey, the leader of the Greenwich, Conn., affiliate of Voice of the Faithful, which is meeting in an Episcopal church. As for the Episcopalians' assistance, he said, "It's very Christian of them."

Michael Paulson can be reached by e-mail at mpaulson@globe.com.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 12/8/2002.
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