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Spotlight Report

Group sees N.Y. victory as boost

Voice of the Faithful renews push for access

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 5/3/2003

Voice of the Faithful, after winning a significant victory with the removal of a ban against the organization in New York, is making a renewed push for unfettered access to church meeting halls in Boston and elsewhere around the nation.

Bishop Thomas V. Daily of Brooklyn this week became the first US bishop to reverse a ban against the lay organization, which was formed by Massachusetts Catholics upset over the clergy sexual abuse crisis. Daily, who in October had barred Voice of the Faithful from meeting on church property in Brooklyn and Queens, this week sent a letter to those area's priests and deacons, declaring that after a series of meetings between his aides and the group's leaders, he had changed his mind.

"I became aware that a number of good and dedicated members of our diocese, who were members of VOTF, were truly desirous to reflect on our present ecclesial concerns and collaborate in strengthening the unity of our church," wrote Daily, a Belmont native who was ordained in Boston and who served as a top aide to Cardinal Humberto S. Medeiros of Boston in the 1970s and 1980s.

Daily said that initially he had concerns about "the danger that individuals with other agendas -- some of them contrary to the teachings and discipline of the church -- might use these well-intended members of our loyal faithful as unsuspecting vehicles for the promotion of their plans." However, after reviewing documents drafted by the lay organization, he found the group's positions "in accord with the teachings of the church."

Daily's action is an important development for Voice of the Faithful, which has been trying to rebut accusations from critics that it is a dissident organization that does not support key church teachings. Voice of the Faithful is banned from meeting on church property in all or part of seven other dioceses, including Boston.

"This is a historic event, and one that gives all Catholics hope," said Steve Krueger, executive director of Voice of the Faithful. "Bishop Daily did something that was courageous, by breaking ranks with his brother bishops."

It is not clear how much influence Daily's action will have on other bishops. Daily oversees the nation's fifth-largest diocese, with 1.6 million Catholics. His strong ties to Boston and alleged failure to remove abusive priests from the ministry in the past mean he is a central figure in the scandal that prompted the birth of Voice of the Faithful. But he is also at the twilight of his career; last fall, he passed the mandatory retirement age of 75 and is awaiting a replacement in Brooklyn.

None of the other seven dioceses where Voice of the Faithful is banned said they planned any immediate change in policy.

"Nothing has changed," Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, spokesman for the Boston archdiocese, said yesterday. "Bishop Lennon is continuing to meet with the leadership of Voice of the Faithful, and seeking to resolve some of the areas of concern that he has at present."

James G. Goodness, a spokesman for the archdiocese of Newark, said, "There is no change in the Newark position," while Joseph J. McAleer, spokesman for the diocese of Bridgeport, said "Bishop William E. Lori's decision, made last summer, to not allow Voice of the Faithful to meet on church property still stands."

In Camden, N.J., spokesman Andrew J. Walton said, "The concerns that were raised were about the ambiguity and confusion that surround the group's goals, and there has been no indication that there has been greater clarity on that matter, either at the local or national level." And in Portland, Maine, spokeswoman Susan Y. Bernard said Bishop Joseph J. Gerry "would like to wait to hear how Voice of the Faithful is developing its program activities -- not the goals -- before he thinks about future cooperation."

Spokesmen for the dioceses of Rockville Center, on Long Island, and Baker, in Oregon, did not return phone calls or e-mails seeking comment on their bans on Voice of the Faithful.

Numerous other bishops around the country have allowed Voice of the Faithful, which claims 30,000 members, to meet on church property. Most notable is Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago, who recently met with Dr. James E. Muller, the founder of Voice of the Faithful.

Voice of the Faithful leaders say the organization aims to support victims of abuse and "priests of integrity" and to shape "structural change" in the church by promoting a greater role for laypeople in church life.

The "statement of beliefs" that Daily reviewed and sent to his priests declares support for church teachings, but also says that the sexual abuse crisis "revealed flaws that require renewal in the human, institutional aspects of our church" and that "bishops fail . . . when they refuse to engage the laity in a meaningful, substantive discussion of the issues."

Rev. William A. Clark, an assistant professor of religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross who has been following Voice of the Faithful, said Daily's action is significant.

"He has put his own reputation on the line, in terms of his ability to discern these things, when there has been a pretty constant barrage saying Voice of the Faithful is trying to establish a parallel church and so on," Clark said. "He is responding to things that are present in Voice of the Faithful's own self-understanding, and to the danger of a de facto schism continuing to develop between a particular group of frustrated laypeople and the hierarchy."

Daily said he would allow individual pastors to decide whether to permit Voice of the Faithful to meet in churches, and would ask them to attend the meetings or send a delegate. Several pastors in Brooklyn and Queens have already expressed support for the group, and some priests in Brooklyn and Queens have themselves organized in a parallel group called Voice of the Ordained.

"We're very eager to be back in our parishes, " said Melissa Gradel, the Voice of the Faithful coordinator in Brooklyn and Queens. Gradel, who has served as

chairwoman of the strategic planning committee, said that during her meetings with Daily's aides she was asked to reassure church officials that Voice of the Faithful had not taken positions on issues such as the ordination of women.

"The ban seemed to brand us as dissidents or heretics," she said. "Now I'm hoping we'll be able to reach out to more people in parishes."

Carol McKinley, a leader of an organization called Faithful Voice that is planning to file a critique of Voice of the Faithful to the Vatican, called Daily's action "craven and misguided" and said she expects it to be overturned by his successor.

But Voice of the Faithful president James E. Post said Daily's willingness to investigate the organization should be a model for other dioceses.

"We're gratified that Bishop Daily has come to this conclusion, and we hope that the other bishops will take note of the reasoning and the process," he said.


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