The Boston Globe | Abuse in the Catholic Church


Bishops seek out opinions, in private

Conference focus is church future

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 7/11/2003

The leaders of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops this week met secretly with a group of prominent Catholic business executives, academics, and journalists to discuss the future of the church in light of the clergy sexual abuse crisis.

The daylong meeting, which took place Monday at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, represented an unusually high-level effort to bring together the leaders of the US church with some of its leading thinkers and the most prominent of the faithful. On the agenda, according to participants, were no-holds-barred discussions of the role of laypeople in the church, accountability, communications, management, and finances within the church.

''These were very important people getting together and thinking about how we can shape the church for the future,'' said one attendee, Monika K. Hellwig, president and executive director of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. ''There are some things that will not move without Rome. But we can make some efforts to move Rome, and there is a whole range of other affairs that are really internal to the North American Church, and they can reshape the way things are done.''

The gathering, billed as a dialogue concerning ''The Church in America: The Way Forward in the 21st Century,'' was organized by Geoffrey T. Boisi, a former chairman of the Boston College board of trustees who was vice chairman of JPMorganChase and co-CEO of JP Morgan. The gathering was hosted by Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, the archbishop of Washington.

Among the participants were several Bostonians, including Mary Jo Bane, a professor of public policy and management at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University; Dr. Michael F. Collins, president and chief executive officer of Caritas Christi Health Care; Dr. Mary Jane England, president of Regis College; Rev. J. Bryan Hehir, president of Catholic Charities USA and former head of Harvard Divinity School; Sister Mary Johnson, an associate professor of sociology and religious studies at Emmanuel College; the Rev. J. Donald Monan, chancellor of Boston College; and R. Robert Popeo, chairman and president of the law firm Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo.

The top officials of the bishops' conference were present, including the president, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., the vice president, Bishop William S. Skylstad of Spokane, and Bishops Robert N. Lynch of St. Petersburg and William B. Friend of Shreveport, La.

Participants were sworn to secrecy, and many either did not return phone calls or refused to speak for the record about what transpired. Boisi refused to comment and urged the Globe not to write about the conference; McCarrick was traveling yesterday and could not be reached.

''I thought it was a frank and honest and useful conversation, but to say more than that would be breaking the way in which I accepted the invitation,'' said Rev. Hehir.

Rev. Thomas J. Reese, editor of America magazine, a Jesuit weekly, said, ''It was an opportunity for some laypeople to get together with some bishops and have a conversation about the direction of the church and the future of the church. They had a very good, positive conversation.''

But several participants, saying they do not understand the need for silence, agreed to describe what transpired as long as their quotes were not attributed to them. A few consented to be quoted speaking generally about the gathering.

''A number of laypeople who are very upset about what's been going on in the church feel they have something to contribute because of their experience in management, and from one perspective, this was a management failure,'' said one participant, referring to the clergy abuse scandal. ''There were a lot of very personal things: People's grandchildren are no longer interested in the church. These are people who are in their 50s and 60s, who grew up very faithful to the church, and are worried about where the church is going.''

Another conference attendee said a number of tough issues were raised, including the role of women in the church and the restriction of the priesthood to celibate men, but that those topics came up largely in breakout sessions among smaller groups.

''This is a group trying to influence the decisions of the church in terms of the role that's going to be played by the laity, what are some of the obstacles to a broader representation in the clergy in terms of married men and women, and what is going to be the vehicle for dialogue,'' said another participant. ''This isn't some insurrection or some conspiracy. This is a group that has the interests of the church deeply at heart, and feels it just isn't moving, that the pace is much too slow. Ultimately, we want to help move it forward in the right direction.''

Those in attendence said the bishops did not comment specifically on the issues raised, though Bishop Gregory did offer closing remarks in which he welcomed the opportunity to participate and suggested that the church should look for more constructive ways of operating in the future.

Some of those who attended came away hopeful.

''I was most impressed by the . . . laypeople who came together for that meeting. Not only did they demonstrate professional expertise in a range of fields, but their commitment to the church and its faith and its mission was very obvious and very moving,'' said one participant. ''The bishops could not help but be impressed and inspired by the depth of love and concern that the laity have for their church. No bishop could leave that meeting without having a lot to reflect upon.''

But some were less heartened, saying the group was not diverse enough, and that at times the conversation devolved into a gripe session reminiscent of meetings that less prominent gatherings of laypeople have been going to for the past year and a half.

''The discussion derailed too early in the day to more complaining, instead of practical proposals,'' said one. ''We have to find the practical ways of intervening in what is dysfunctional and needs to be refocused and reorganized and restructured, and that didn't happen.''

None of the bishops returned calls seeking comment, but a spokesman for the bishops' conference, Monsignor Francis J. Maniscalco, said by e-mail, ''The meeting was described by those who suggested it as an informal and confidential session for the sharing of some concerns. It was not an organizing or planning meeting. The bishops in attendance were not representing the conference but attended as individuals without any expectation that the meeting would lead to anything beyond the sharing that occurred during its course.''

Participants heard presentations and responses from a number of prominent voices in the American church who also participated in the dialogue, including R. Scott Appleby, a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame; Bane; Francis J. Butler, president, FADICA (Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities, Inc.); James D. Davidson Jr., a professor of sociology at Purdue University; Frederick Gluck, former managing director, McKinsey & Co.; Monan; Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, editor, Commonweal magazine; Peter Steinfels, an author who contributes a religion column to the New York Times; Popeo; and Reese.

Michael Paulson can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 7/11/2003.
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