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Spotlight Report

O'Malley to reconsider policies against lay group

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 11/20/2003

Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley, saying it is time for healing and reconciliation, said yesterday that he will reconsider the Archdiocese of Boston's refusals to accept money raised by Voice of the Faithful or to allow new affiliates of the lay organization to meet on church property.

O'Malley also told leaders of Voice of the Faithful that he wants to strengthen the role of lay people in administering parishes, and he pledged to make public an audit of the archdiocese's efforts to prevent sexual abuse of minors.

O'Malley met yesterday for the first time with leaders of Voice of the Faithful, an international group based in Newton claiming 30,000 members that was formed last year by Catholics upset by the church's handling of the clergy sex abuse crisis. The private meeting lasted about an hour, and was characterized by a level of mutual respect that was not present at meetings between the lay organization and Cardinal Bernard F. Law, according to participants.

O'Malley's spokesman, the Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, used the most generous language ever by a Boston church leader to describe Voice of the Faithful, an organization that around the country has been welcomed by some bishops but banned by others and which has been denounced by its critics as dissident.

"Each member of Voice of the Faithful who came made it very clear . . . that they are faithful, good members of their parishes, and that the people who are part of Voice of the Faithful are not dissidents, people who are not out to spread disunity within the church, but just people who want to help the church move forward," Coyne told reporters after the meeting. "All of us around the table did not see divisions between Catholic and Catholic, but mainly just saw some issues within the family that need to be resolved."

Coyne said that the improved assessment of Voice of the Faithful is possible because of an improved climate at the archdiocese. O'Malley recently brokered an $85 million settlement of legal claims brought by more than 500 alleged victims of clergy sexual abuse, and his straight talk, frequent meetings with victims, and steps to resolve the crisis have been generally greeted with good will.

"The circumstances in which we're all living and moving forward as a church have drastically changed in the last six months," Coyne said. "While recognizing that there are still . . . many things to do, that allows for conversation that's open and honest."

Two bishops in the United States have reversed bans against the organization: Thomas V. Daily of Brooklyn and Daniel E. Pilarczyk of Cincinnati. The organization is currently barred from meeting on church property in 10 dioceses, including Fall River, where O'Malley's successor banned the organization as one of his first acts in office.

Coyne did not characterize the likelihood of change in Boston, where Law and Bishop Richard G. Lennon -- the interim leader of the archdiocese after Law resigned -- did not accept money raised by the group and said that any chapter of the group formed after Oct. 13, 2002, would be barred from meeting on church property. "He said that he would consider lifting the partial ban on affiliates in the archdiocese," Coyne said of O'Malley. "He also asked the chancellor to look at the financial structure and setup of the Voice of Compassion fund."

Voice of the Faithful leaders, speaking after the meeting, said O'Malley strongly suggested he was inclined to accept money raised by them. They told him it is painful for loyal Catholics to be barred from using their own parishes for meetings to discuss the state of the church, but said his posture toward lifting the ban is unclear.

Voice of the Faithful has raised approximately $100,000 from people unwilling to give directly to the archdiocese; most of the money has been contributed to Catholic Charities after Law and Lennon declined to accept it.

Voice of the Faithful President James E. Post said yesterday's meeting was "considerably more cordial" than six previous meetings with archdiocesan leaders. He and other leaders of the group yesterday presented a portrait of O'Malley, inscribed with a quote from O'Malley's installation homily and with the prayer of St. Francis, to the archbishop as a good-will gesture.

"We spoke and he listened; he spoke and we listened," Post said. "I think Archbishop Sean has questions that need to be resolved, and of course we would provide that information. We want to get on with it."

O'Malley was accompanied to the meeting by Lennon, Coyne, archdiocesan chancellor David W. Smith, and Barbara Thorp, who is the archdiocese's liaison to abuse victims. Post was accompanied by Steve Krueger, the organization's executive director, as well as by two active members of the organization, Elia Marnik of Reading and Margaret Roylance of Newton. The meeting took place at the house in Brighton formerly used as the archbishop's residence; O'Malley, honoring a pledge he made during the summer, earlier this week moved into the rectory at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in the South End.

"Over and over and over again, everybody kept talking about moving forward, moving towards healing," Coyne said. O'Malley has repeatedly said he does not know much about Voice of the Faithful, which did not have chapters in Fall River or Palm Beach when he was the bishop there. A portion of yesterday's meeting involved Voice of the Faithful members explaining how their group came about, and about its goals, which include supporting victims and "priests of integrity" and helping to shape structural change in the church.

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.


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