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Bella English

Progress in pews, but little in church hierarchy

Voice of the Faithful’s ‘‘accountability certificate.’’ Voice of the Faithful’s ‘‘accountability certificate.’’
By Bella English
Globe Columnist / April 18, 2010

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Anne Southwood grew up in the Catholic Church and raised three children in it. When the priest sex abuse scandal erupted in the Archdiocese of Boston in 2002, the music director at her church, Holy Family in Duxbury, announced a listening session on the charged topic, to be held downstairs.

“Two of us were gone [downstairs] before she even finished the sentence,’’ says Southwood, who now lives in Marshfield. Why? “Well, good heavens, I don’t adjust well to evil.’’

At the session, Southwood learned of the newly-formed Voice of the Faithful, now a national movement that started in Wellesley in response to the sexual abuse crisis. When Southwood tried to get a VOTF meeting in her own church, she was denied by the parish priest. So she and others went across the street and met in the senior citizens center.

Southwood was on the ground floor of the reform movement and today is chairwoman of the South Shore council of the Voice of the Faithful. Though the furor over the scandal here died down years ago, Southwood’s and other members’ phones are ringing again with the burgeoning scandal in Europe, which has even reached the Vatican. “We’re getting a lot more support, online and e-mailed donations,’’ she says.

April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, and the Voice of the Faithful is urging Catholics to talk about the subject to eliminate the stigma — “the silence of shame and denial that permits it to continue.’’ This week, VOTF created “accountability certificates’’ that Catholics can put in their donation envelopes to a diocesan fund or bishop appeal. “By accepting and depositing the enclosed donation, the leader of this diocese’’ must agree to three conditions, according to the certificate: report allegations of clergy sex abuse immediately to police; guarantee that all diocesan and parish employees undergo “safe environment’’ training developed by the US Council of Catholic Bishops in 2004; and agree to request the resignation of any archbishop, bishop, or other religious leader (“including himself’’) who knowingly transferred a pedophile priest.

The certificates have a space for the spiritual leader’s signature, along with the donor’s name. The Voice of the Faithful is asking people to print the certificates and share them with friends in an effort to “stop the hiding and start the healing.’’

The most recent allegations involve as many as 200 deaf boys in a Wisconsin school 40 years ago. The Rev. Lawrence Murphy, who admitted to the abuse, was never disciplined or tried criminally; indeed, he was transferred to a different diocese where he served another quarter-century, until his death in 1998. In 1996, complaints about Murphy were forwarded to an office then led by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — now Pope Benedict XVI — who failed to respond.

As for the news, Southwood isn’t surprised: “It’s a systemic flaw that allowed this thing to happen.’’ Still, she sees signs of progress, such as a young Irish priest in her parish who began a recent homily by mentioning the crisis. And a conservative parishioner who raised the question of “optional celibacy’’ for priests. National polls show that most Catholics favor married priests as a way to solve the priest shortage. In this country, some married Episcopalian priests are allowed to become Catholic priests upon conversion.

Despite some progress in the pews, Southwood sees an inflexibility in the hierarchy, and she remains discouraged by the low attendance at Mass in the Archdiocese of Boston. “In my area, it hovers around 20 percent,’’ she says. “What future is there for a church whose members show up only for an annual board meeting?’’ As churchgoers age and young people leave, she wonders who will fill the pews.

Southwood also belongs to an online lay discussion group called Voice of Renewal, an educational branch of VOTF. Members study Vatican II documents and current church issues as they relate to the teachings of Jesus. A self-described “scripture fanatic,’’ she believes many of her fellow Catholics aren’t well-informed about their church.

“There’s been a lot of hunkering down in the parishes, to survive, the past eight years,’’ she says. “I wish my fellow Catholics would step up and take responsibility for our church. There are some who still cling to the notion of the church as perfect.’’

Locally, three priests were recently charged with sexual abuse. The Rev. Charles J. Murphy of St. Francis Xavier Church in Weymouth stepped down earlier this month after a man said the priest abused him nearly 40 years ago. Murphy has agreed to refrain from ministry while the archdiocese investigates.

In January, the Rev. J. Garret Thomson of St. Martha’s in Plainville was placed on administrative leave by the archdiocese after a sex abuse allegation. Two days later, Thomson, 55, was found dead in his home in Jaffrey, N.H. The medical examiner ruled that diabetes and high blood pressure contributed to his death.

The Rev. Kenneth LeBlanc, pastor of St. Peter’s Church in Plymouth, was accused in February 2009 by a woman who said he abused her and other girls while he was a parish priest in Wakefield. LeBlanc was also placed on leave while the archdiocese investigated. He died in January of cancer at age 61.

Southwood says the Voice of the Faithful has asked the archdiocese for an up-to-date list of all priests who are the subject of credible allegations, but has never received one. She’d also like to see more dialogue between parishioners and the hierarchy. “Talk to your people, listen to your people,’’ she says. “How can you present yourself as an arbiter of morals when you lack credibility?’’

Tongue in cheek — I think — Southwood says the church needs someone like her Irish grandmother in charge.

“She was a piece of work,’’ she says with a chuckle. “She had the whole neighborhood under control for bad behavior.’’

Globe columnist Bella English lives in Milton. She can be reached at english@globe.com.

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