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Spotlight Report

  Eileen McNamara  

Rome faces new reality

12/15/2002

Rome alone made the decision to remove the discredited archbishop of Boston. Now it must consult the people in the pews and the priests in the parishes to choose his successor.

Of all the ramifications of the tragic events in the Boston Archdiocese in this scandal-plagued year, none will be more far-reaching in the life of the Roman Catholic Church than the role of a reenergized laity and an un-muzzled clergy.

Cardinal Bernard F. Law's relegation to a disgraced retirement does not mean parishioners will be receding quietly back into the choir lofts and Sunday school classrooms. Humble Catholics and obedient priests found more than their voice this year; they secured their place at the table. Rome ignores them at its own peril.

It is hard to believe that it was only 10 months ago that what is now an international movement to reclaim the soul of Catholicism began in the parish hall of a Wellesley church with a handful of heartsick altar servers and daily communicants. Their aims - to comfort the abused, to support honorable priests, to work for structural change - were at once humble and revolutionary. They are not about to go away now.

The unprecedented demise of a ranking cardinal-archbishop is one manifestation of the power of those who embraced victims preyed upon by priests, who braved rain and snow to demand justice at the doors of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. The support of these ordinary Catholics empowered 58 priests to risk the wrath of their superiors, to test their vows of obedience and call for Law's removal. The activism of these once passive Catholics and their once supine priests reminded the broader community of faith that social justice requires courage as well as compassion.

The need for courage remains even as Law departs. Voice of the Faithful, the lay organization formed in that Wellesley church hall, now boasts 27,000 members, but its chapters have been banned from meeting on church property by bishops in Connecticut, Maine, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, and parts of Massachusetts. Some of those bishops are Law's former deputies who will be called to account by the people as well as the legal system for facilitating all those inter-parish transfers of predatory priests.

There are grand jury investigations in at least nine states, and hundreds of civil lawsuits pending across the country. Law is unlikely to be the last to go. ''It begins in Boston but it does not end here,'' says Susan Troy, a graduate of the Weston Jesuit School of Theology and a founder of Voice of the Faithful. ''We know the pain that will be felt across the country as the truth emerges, parish to parish.''

And the fallout from this traumatic year will extend far beyond this crisis. The people whose faith and good works sustain the Catholic Church will no longer be denied a role in its decision-making. ''The unity of the church now means the hierarchy, the laity, and the priests. Without one of those, there is no church,'' says Troy.

Confronted with the poisoned fruit of secrecy and authoritarianism, a culture that has historically quashed dissent and elevated exclusion to high art can either crumble or change. Change is never painless. Repairing the breach of trust in Boston will require an archbishop willing not only to listen but also to respond to the voice of his priests and his people. That voice does not speak in unison on every contentious issue facing a medieval church in a modern world, but it does speak as one in its call for inclusion and dialogue.

It will not be an easy search. The investigations and lawsuits are targeting the very bishops who once might have been considered logical successors to Law. Many will be lucky to hold onto their jobs, maybe even their freedom, when the smoke clears.

''Children were sacrificed to the golden calf of the institutional church. That ends now,'' says Troy. ''It feels right that this is the time of Advent, when we experience light and dark, always together.''

Eileen McNamara is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at mcnamara@globe.com.

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 12/15/2002.
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