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Conference of lay Catholics to offer solution to crisis from pews
By Robert O'Neill, Associated Press, 07/19/02
BOSTON -- After months of legal drama and summits of Roman Catholic leaders on the abuse of children by priests, thousands of ordinary churchgoers will gather here Saturday to offer their solution and a perspective from the pews.
"In Rome the pope spoke, and in Dallas the bishops spoke, and in Boston the laity is going to speak," said Jim Post, president of Voice of the Faithful, which is hosting its first national conference. "This is a day of awareness building, education, kind of the great awakening."
The conference was expected to draw 4,200 people from at least 28 states and Germany and Canada.
The group's membership has grown to nearly 20,000 in the five months since it began in the basement of a church in suburban Newton. It was formed in response to the sex scandal that began in the Boston Archdiocese earlier this year and has since engulfed the nation's Catholic Church.
Voice of the Faithful is pressing for greater lay involvement in the church, arguing that such oversight could have helped prevent the scandal and forced the bishops to take action. The organization has accused the church of protecting priests and maintaining a culture of secrecy.
The group announced Friday that it had started to assemble a national database of abusive priests and created monitoring forms for churchgoers to check local compliance with a reform charter passed by bishops in June.
"I'm sure any group that wants to give input, input will certainly be welcome," said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "Everyone agrees that the new charter must be implemented, and whatever input that is given will be very helpful."
"I think they're onto something beyond just talking and complaining. They're looking at some positive approach to this," sad the Rev. Tom Doyle, an Air Force chaplain and expert in the issue of clergy abuse. He will speak at the conference.
The nation's bishops, meeting last month in Dallas, approved a policy on sexual abuse that includes both a national and local review boards made up of lay Catholics. But critics say those proposals do not go far enough.
Voice's relationship with the Boston Archdiocese has been tense. Earlier this year, the archdiocese was moved to issue a statement firmly asserting that lay organizations are subordinate to bishops.
The relationship has also been strained by the group's creation of a fund that would allow Catholics in the Boston Archdiocese to contribute to charities but bypass the church's central administration.
A representative of the archdiocese plans to attend the conference.
Prayer and a Mass will be interspersed with seminars on how to start local chapters and how to ensure parishes focus on keeping children safe.
Participants will learn about church governance and discuss such topics as sexuality in the priesthood. Victims of child-molesting priests will address the gathering, and seminars will deal with how to help victims.
Phil Saviano, head of the New England chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said some victims have been reluctant to embrace Voice because it is a new organization of faithful Catholics.
"And victims find it hard to trust that Catholics are finally on our side," he said.
But he said the group's existence and its goals are a comfort to victims: "This has never happened in the Catholic Church -- they're behaving like a bunch of Protestants."
Observers say the conference will be crucial in charting the future of the group, which has appointed an interim executive director and is trying to raise $500,000 to help with operations.
"This conference is important to nationalize the body, and to give it visibility and to give it geographical diversity," said Chester Gillis, a theology professor at Georgetown University. "If they're able to do that, then it has legs."