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Spotlight Report

Catholic lay leaders urge broad reforms

Ask for rethinking of ministry, secrecy

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 3/10/2002

In an extraordinary display of how the sexual abuse of children by priests has affected local Catholics, many of the church's top lay leaders yesterday told Cardinal Bernard F. Law that they want sweeping reforms of the church's structure.

The lay leaders, nearly 3,000 of whom were chosen to meet with the cardinal because they sit on parish councils or play other central roles in their churches, repeated again and again a desire to consider ministry, power, and secrecy within the church.

Meeting at the World Trade Center in South Boston for Convocation 2002, some lay leaders called for Law to step down because of his acknowledged mishandling of pedophile priests, while others said the cardinal should stay and fix the problem. But many said the church needs to do more than come up with a child protection plan.

''In a strange way, this whole situation has really empowered Catholic people and priests at the parish level. I think we've kind of crossed a line, and I don't think we're going to go back,'' said Patricia Casey, 48, of Newton, a member of the parish council at Saint Ignatius Loyola. ''People will be asking, when we get together next year, `What has changed in the church because of this?' That's the question of the day.''

Law responded at the end of the day with a solemn apology. He said he has begun meeting with victims of clergy sexual abuse and is willing to meet with any who want to see him. He did not offer any specific proposals for change, but aides said the archdiocese soon plans to establish a new office for victim services to emphasize its commitment to outreach to those harmed by priests.

''I stand before you recognizing that the trust which many of you have had in me has been broken ... because of decisions for which I was responsible, which I made,'' he said. ''With all my heart, I am sorry for that, I apologize for that, and I will reflect on what this all means. You have my commitment ...that I will do the best I can to find the course, the path, that will take us to where we need to be.''

Law was greeted twice by standing ovations, even from many who want him to resign.

This year's annual convocation, the 10th Law has held in an effort to allow lay leaders to meet with their bishop, was unlike any previous gathering. Law scrapped the original agenda - several dozen workshops on a variety of issues - in favor of six giant ''listening sessions'' during which the lay leaders, as well as priests and nuns, were given a chance to express their feelings about clergy sexual abuse and the church's handling of it.

As the lay leaders arrived, they were met by about 50 protesters holding signs with slogans including ''Justice and Mercy for Victims,'' ''Speaking Out is Holy,'' and ''Shame.'' The protesters included advocates of women's ordination and pacifism, as well as families of victims.

Inside the conference, some laypeople wore lavender ribbons to show their sorrow over the pain experienced by victims of abuse by priests. Others wore white buttons reading, ''In Solidarity with Our Priest,'' in an effort to demonstrate the widespread concern parishioners are expressing about the psychological impact of the sexual abuse scandal on priests who are not abusers. A group of women from Wellesley wore red, which they said represented their penitence over their church's conduct.

''You've got a pretty outraged flock here,'' said Paul A. Baier, 36, of Wellesley, a parishioner at Saint John the Evangelist Church. ''And this is the core of the church. These are 3,000 hard-core believers willing to give up a Saturday, and if they're 50 to 80 percent pissed off, you've got a problem.''

Security was tight at yesterday's gathering. In contrast with previous years, reporters were barred from attending a large part of the convocation, including the listening sessions and the delivery of a summary report on the concerns of lay leaders. The archdiocese barred television cameras, still photographers, and audio recorders from all official events, insisting that the news media use images and sound supplied by the church-controlled television station, Boston Catholic Television, and newspaper, The Pilot.

But reporters were allowed to watch Mass and the cardinal's remarks, and many laypeople and church staffers were eager to brief reporters about the events.

Some participants in the convocation said the clergy abuse scandal was a reflection of bias by newspapers, especially the Globe, which in January published a Spotlight report on the church's handling of John J. Geoghan, a pedophile priest who allegedly molested dozens of children in several parishes over three decades. Since that time, the Boston archdiocese has acknowledged that at least 80 priests have been accused of sexually abusing children during the last five decades, and the scandal has spread nationwide, leading on Friday to the resignation of a Florida bishop who acknowledged sexually abusing a youngster early in his career.

Other participants argued that the church should praise the media for focusing attention on the issue, and many said they were unhappy with secrecy in the church and poor communication with parishioners.

''For more than two months, we have been inundated by the media with details of that awful history,'' Law said. ''It has left us sad, it has left us angry, and it has robbed us of that trust which a short while ago we took for granted.''

According to priests, laypeople, and church staff who attended the listening sessions and a summary of them, participants were angry and upset, but cordial. Many people said they thought Law should resign, but others wanted him to stay. A number expressed concern about the financial ramifications of the clergy sexual abuse scandal for church social service programs, as well as for low-income parishes and Catholic schools that depend on church subsidies to survive.

Many expressed a desire for reform, but the only consensus, according to participants, was that women should play more of a role in church life, and that laypeople should have a greater voice.

''We need to change the whole power structure of the church,'' said Bonnie Ciambotti, 48, of Newton, a eucharistic minister and a religious education teacher at Saint Ignatius of Loyola Church. ''We need more women. The power, and the male dominance, and the secrecy are how this whole thing started.''

Some called for the ordination of women, or for allowing priests to marry, but others disagreed.

''I would be very disappointed if this catastrophe in Boston ends like the catastrophes in Dallas and Chicago, where there is a local solution and yet the structural elements of the church at large are not addressed,'' said Dr. Jim Muller, 59, of Wellesley, a parishioner at Saint John the Evangelist Church. ''We don't want to see the solution end with pedophilia only. There's a broad sentiment in favor of broad reform.''

Among the more radical proposals floated at the sessions were calls for a Third Vatican Council to revamp the whole church, and a suggestion that a coadjutor bishop be appointed in Boston to administer the archdiocese while allowing Law to focus full time on protecting children. One speaker said the church needs to make major changes to head off another event resembling the Reformation, which split Western Christianity.

''What came across is that this is a very articulate, well-educated, and deeply affected group of people who are going to say the truth,'' said the Rev. Robert J. Bowers, pastor of Saint Catherine of Siena in Charlestown. ''You're seeing loyalty at its very best. These people are going to love the church into something else, into a new birth.''

In his response at the end of the convocation, Law said, ''In my most horrible nightmares, I would never have imagined that we would have come to the situation in which we find ourselves.''

Reciting the grievances raised during the day, he said he understood that people feel betrayed by him and are angry at him. He praised ''the courage and the conviction'' of victims, as well as the outpouring of support for parish priests ''who are very often isolated and feeling lonely and in pain.''

''I have heard you passionately and prayerfully plead for greater openness in the church ... [and] I have heard calls for greater and more meaningful involvement of the laity in the life of the church, and specifically of women in the life of the church,'' he said. ''I don't have the answers today for all the things that I have heard. ... I have heard a great deal. And I need and I want ... to really take in what you have offered.''

Michael Paulson can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 3/10/2002.
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