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Spotlight Report

  Maura O'Brien, left, and Kathy Mullaney counting the votes from Voice of the Faithful representatives on a petition to the Vatican to appoint a new archbishop of Boston. (Globe Staff Photo / John Bohn)

Lay group votes to seek cardinal's ouster

By Thomas Farragher, Globe Staff, 12/12/2002

 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
NEWTON - A group of moderate Catholics formed in the wake of the clergy sexual abuse scandal last night voted to demand Cardinal Bernard F. Law's ouster, charging him with sacrificing his moral authority by covering up for ''evil'' priests while promising to protect children from their sexual attacks.

The leadership of Voice of the Faithful, an organization of lay Catholics that claims 25,000 members, overwhelmingly approved a petition to the Vatican to appoint a new archbishop of Boston.

It was by far the boldest step yet for a group that has mostly sought to avoid open conflict with church officials since its inception 10 months ago.

The group also called on all US bishops to open the personnel files of sexually abusive priests.

''We do this with some pain but with a complete sense of confidence that the only way that the church can reclaim its moral integrity is for its people to stand up and insist that sunlight be brought to these matters,'' said James E. Post, Voice of the Faithful's president.

The vote was preceded by a passionate but joyless debate at Our Lady Help of Christians in Newton, whose outspoken pastor has drawn Law's ire for questioning the cardinal's leadership. The group said it would notify the Vatican of its move against Law by fax.

''We do not mean to take over the church,'' said Svea Fraser, a founding member of Voice of the Faithful. ''We are the teachers, the lectors, the eucharistic ministers. We realize the gospel value of standing up and speaking the truth. It's time to move on.''

With Law at the Vatican reportedly in secret talks about his future in Boston, and with scores of archdiocesan priests in open revolt against him, the lay group's vote to seek Law's resignation underscored the depth of dissent that was unleashed last week when documents revealed that the cardinal's knowledge about predator priests was more extensive than he had disclosed.

The vote to call for Law's removal was 71-2, with two abstentions. Among those supporting the motion was David Castaldi of Brookline, who last year served six months as the archdiocesan chancellor.

''I know Cardinal Law personally and well, and I know him to be a good priest,'' a somber Castaldi said. ''Rather than applauding, we ought to be praying.''

In a meeting in April, Voice of the Faithful turned aside calls for Law's resignation after just a handful of about 300 members resisted that move. That was in keeping with the group's mostly nonconfrontational agenda that includes acceptance of church authority and teachings, and avoiding positions on controversies such as whether women should be ordained.

But the organization's leadership said the explosive details contained in last week's release of clergy personnel files directly contradicted what Law had told Voice of the Faithful members during a meeting Nov. 26, according to Post. Law insisted at that meeting that since 1993 when he implemented a sex abuse policy the oversight of sexually abusive priests had improved, Post said.

''He said not once but several times in that meeting that he personally was committed to not only creating a policy to protect children prospectively, but also to take care of what had happened in the past,'' Post said. ''The disclosures of that correspondence and the fact that it runs up to right about the present just contradicted what he had said.''

For example, records released last week showed Law knew that in 1999 the Rev. Peter J. Frost was an admitted sex addict and child abuser and still, in a letter to Frost, held open the possibility of future ministry for him. Frost was removed from active ministry in 1992.

The organization's president said he hoped last night's move would embolden Catholics elsewhere to press their bishops for a full accounting about how their diocese has acted to protect children from sexually abusive clergy.

Last night's agenda was considered by 75 members who represent Voice of the Faithful affiliates in parishes around the state. The group's leadership said more than 25,000 people nationwide have registered as members on its Web site. More than half of those, about 13,000, live in Massachusetts.

One resolution taken up last night calls on Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops; another asks Pope John Paul II to hasten Law's removal because the crisis in Boston has effectively severed Law's ability to lead his church; a third was addressed to Law himself; and another calls on Gregory to implore his membership to open the hidden records of known sex abusers in their dioceses.

Stephen J. Pope, chairman of Boston College's theology department, said Voice of the Faithful's move against Law is significant because it converges with demands from some priests for the cardinal's removal and because it comes from a group representing the church's mainstream membership.

''It's not made in a spirit of animosity or with any delight in seeing a man, who's done a lot for the church, be harmed or humiliated,'' Pope said. ''The focus is on the common good of the church.''

Pope said the vote comes with some risk. ''It shows courage because it will make some people, who had thought about joining Voice of the Faithful, not join it,'' he said. ''But that's a risk you take when you make a stand.''

John Vellante, a spokesman for the North Andover chapter of Voice of the Faithful, said the group had been encouraged by Law's decision to meet with them last month, especially since the cardinal in October barred any new chapters from meeting on church property. About 30 chapters of the group were already meeting in local churches when Law issued that edict, and they have not been forced to move.

''We thought we had started an honest dialogue and it turned out he was lying directly to us,'' said Vellante. ''There's no leadership whatsoever in the diocese right now. We're like a ship without a captain.''

Susan Troy of Wellesley, one of the organization's charter members, said last night's action would be a new beginning. ''We're going to switch our focus from trying to have a dialogue with one man to working for changes in the church so this never happens again,'' she said. ''We're faithful Catholics. This feels solid. This is about love of church, love of faith, and disgust for the entire situation.''

Troy was with the group when it began in February in the basement of a parish school at St. John the Evangelist Church in Wellesley under the simple slogan: ''Keep the Faith, Change the Church.''

''Something like this has never happened before,'' she said. ''We have been growing with respect for our own voice.''

Thomas Farragher can be reached at farragher@globe.com.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 12/12/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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