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Spotlight Report

Voice of Faithful sets a reform agenda

By Jenna Russell, Globe Staff, 6/8/2003

NEWTON -- Vowing to change the church from the ground up, one parish at a time, 300 members of the lay Catholic group Voice of the Faithful met in Newton yesterday to draft a ''blueprint for change,'' saying Boston's new archbishop cannot solve the problems of the archdiocese alone.

By the year 2005, they hope to see ''a groundswell of lay participation'' in the Boston Archdiocese, increased recognition of the active laity's value, rebuilt trust among Catholics, and confidence in the safety of children in the church, according to a vision statement drafted by the group yesterday. The document is not yet final, members said.

''We have lived through too much in these past 18 months to believe that one man can solve the problems our church faces,'' Voice of the Faithful president Jim Post told conference participants at the start of the daylong session. ''These are our problems, and we must solve them together.''

The Catholics who gathered in Newton yesterday -- representing the 45 local Voice of the Faithful affiliates in Boston and its suburbs -- hammered out goals for improvement in 10 areas. They included parish-to-parish communication, laity-clergy collaboration, disclosure of church finances, and victim support and protection of children. They also sought ways to involve lay Catholics in the pastoral selection process -- and in the governance of the archdiocese.

Formed in response to the clergy sexual abuse crisis, Voice of the Faithful now claims 30,000 members worldwide. The Newton-based group has been shunned by church leaders; before he resigned over the scandal, Cardinal Bernard Law refused to accept money raised by its members for charitable works, and his interim replacement, Bishop Richard Lennon, also declined to accept its donation this year.

Earlier this month, a bishop in Brooklyn became the first in the country to reverse a ban that kept the group from meeting on church property. In the Boston Archdiocese, chapters that started after last fall are not permitted to meet in church buildings, though members said the policy is not uniformly enforced at area parishes.

Members expressed frustration with the resistance of church leaders yesterday, and one proposed that Voice of the Faithful run newspaper ads explaining why its members should be free to meet at parishes. Margaret Roylance, a leader of the organization, said the vision statement, when finished, will be one way to communicate the goals of the group to church leaders, as well as lay Catholics.

''The whole idea is to find a way to move forward with [the leadership],'' she said. ''We hope [the statement] calls to them as much as it calls to us.''

Incorporating members' suggestions yesterday, group leaders shortened the statement and simplified some of its wording. The draft, which will be posted on the group's website for further comment, refers to abuse survivors as the ''prophets'' who ''showed us the path to truth and justice,'' and promises the group's continuing commitment to their healing and support.

''We will never again look away,'' it concludes. ''Tested by fire, we have found new strength.''

Group discussions, held in classrooms at Newton's Trinity Catholic High School, opened a window on the challenges faced by reform-minded lay Catholics. In a meeting on the protection of children, participants pointed to obstacles to change in the aftermath of the scandal, including bans on Voice of the Faithful meetings, and disorganization at some churches where priests have been removed in recent months.

Still, some members spoke of progress, and suggested policies to promote safe church environments. One plan, developed by Concord Area Voice of The Faithful members, recommends that parishes each form two new councils, one to oversee staffing decisions, and another to write policies on safety and act on abuse allegations.

Joe Costello, a Voice of the Faithful member from Cambridge, said pastors who are open to such changes should be encouraged to influence fellow church leaders. Others called for more education about abuse, both in the church and in the wider community.

Paul Kellen of Medford asked lay Catholics to remember the scandal that brought them together -- however unpleasant -- and urged closer examination of its causes.

''Before we can fix it, we have to understand where it comes from,'' he said.

Jenna Russell can be reached at jrussell@globe.com.

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 6/8/2003.
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