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Spotlight Report

Catholics challenge church in local parishes, believers coalesce to push for change

By Christopher Rowland, Globe Staff, 6/9/2002

With his white hair and gentle, grandfatherly demeanor, Paul Brady makes an unlikely agitator.

A retired butcher who spent his entire life in Waltham, he has taken weekly Communion for decades at St. Mary Church on the city's north side, firm in his belief that ordained Catholic leaders were infallible.

"For most of my years," said the 74-year-old widower, "I've been the blind follower."

But, as the priest sex-abuse scandal engulfed the Archdiocese of Boston this year, Brady, vice chairman of the parish council at St. Mary, gradually grew disillusioned with the response by Cardinal Bernard Law and other high-ranking church officials.

He wrestled with conflicting feelings, pored over news accounts and talked with fellow church council members. Finally, he reduced his contributions to Law's annual fund-raising campaign and invited representatives of the Voice of the Faithful, a lay group that is demanding reforms, into his church.

"When the revelations kept coming out and we saw more and more things that either they hid or pushed under the rug," he said, "that's when my own views began to change."

The willingness of Brady and other faithful suburban Catholics to mount organized challenges to the church hierarchy is the among the most significant consequences of a crisis that has rocked the church. Up close in local parishes, the actions of these parishioners -- which have generated tensions in some churches -- appear to be part of a strong and broad-based movement.

Suburban lawyers and doctors, municipal workers, blue-collar retirees and undertakers are hardly the types you would pick to lead a rebellion. But they are the ones independently raising money for victims of sex abuse -- while shunning the cardinal's annual fund-raising appeals. They are demanding that their local priests sponsor "listening sessions" to give people a chance to vent about their sense of betrayal. And they are setting up parish committees to deal with issues of sex abuse among the clergy.

More than 150 Massachusetts parishes have formed their own chapters of Voice of the Faithful, which is based in Wellesley. A number of other parishes have organized their own responses, independent of outside groups.

Within the governing structure of individual churches, meanwhile, once-docile parish councils made up of lay members and led by local priests are expanding their mission. Where these councils previously concerned themselves with budgets and bake sales, now they are discussing safeguards to protect children from sexual predators.

The upwelling of activism is not limited to younger Catholics or liberal activists. As Brady puts it, the movement includes men and women of differing ages, including "some of us older people who have been kind of passive."

The reaction by church hierarchy and local clergy has been mixed. At the highest levels of the church, archdiocesan officials have expressed support for the involvement of laity and have met with some movement leaders while simultaneously discouraging organizing efforts.

Locally, some parish priests -- in Newton, Wellesley and Wayland, for example -- have embraced the grass-roots outpouring. A group of parishioners from Stow, with the support of their pastor, have been traveling to nearby Concord to attend Voice of the Faithful meetings at a parish there.

Other parishes have discouraged participation in Voice of the Faithful.

"There's no question there's resistance out there," said Darrell Simpson, an organizer of the group for the western suburbs and a member of St. Zepherin Church in Wayland.

The split response is evident in the traditionally blue-collar town of Waltham. The pastor at St. Mary Church has allowed Brady and others in a Voice of the Faithful startup group to meet in the church basement on Thursday nights. But at St. Charles Church in Waltham, the pastor has rejected the legitimacy of Voice of the Faithful because it has not been endorsed by Cardinal Law.

"We are not Congregationalists who hire and fire their leadership at will," the pastor of St. Charles, the Rev. Rodney J. Copp, wrote in the church bulletin recently. "We are members of a church that is defined as heirarchical."

In Medfield, about 30 people met in the town library after the pastor at St. Edward the Commoner Church refused to allow a meeting of lay parishioners on church property. The library session was a not-so-subtle signal that parishioners intended to find their voice.

"People definitely feel the need to vocalize more about the crisis, to get more of a sense of starting the healing process and working together," said Marcelle Foucre, an organizer of the St. Edward group and a parishioner there for 37 years.

The Rev. Leroy Owens's decision to ban the organizational meeting from church grounds "caused some more grumbling," Foucre said. "But I could understand his position. He really is in a tough place. He knows he has to support the laity, but he also has to work with the cardinal."

Owens did not return telephone messages from the Globe. Foucre said a compromise has been reached: A parish committee will be formed at St. Edward to cope with the sex-abuse crisis, but it will not be affiliated with Voice of the Faithful. The group will be permitted to use parish meeting space in the future. Among the top priorities of the Medfield group is conducting a Mass of Compassion and Healing for victims of sexual abuse.

A similar Mass was said at St. Zepherin Church in Wayland recently on a warm, muggy weeknight. About 120 people from St. Zepherin and nearby St. Ann Church were scattered among the pews. Clergy and laity vented anger, sorrow, and a sense of betrayal over the scandal.

After Communion, as the church bell tolled, participants lit candles and filed silently into a courtyard in an expression of solidarity with victims.

It was an emotional mix of defiance and the most sacred church traditions. Even as they challenged archdiocesan leaders, the parish leaders immersed themselves in the symbols and traditions of their faith.

St. Zepherin Response, a newly formed committee of Wayland parishioners that has been meeting in the basement of the church rectory, organized the Mass.

"The role of the laity is to be active in the church, not to sit around waiting for the hierarchy and the ordained to tell us what to do," said Dan Ponsetto, a committee member and chaplain at Boston College.

St. Zepherin Response also helped bring in a child psychologist to counsel parents on how to speak to their children about priest sex-abuse.

"It's a renaissance of the laity," said Karen Kiefer, a St. Zepherin parishioner and organizer. "It's the laity that's going to bring peace and power back to the church."

Other parishes, while sponsoring listening sessions and some small meetings, are still trying to maintain a veneer of normalcy as the scandal batters their cherished institution.

"We are focusing on the essentials of our faith and not getting nuts because there are some problems -- even though they are huge problems," said Bert Sellier, a lay leader at Our Lady of Fatima parish in Sudbury. "As long as we have a good priest and celebrate Mass and administer the sacraments, that is the heart of our faith."

The idea of laity helping guide the church is not new. It was expressed most strongly during the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. In 1988, Cardinal Law issued guidelines for the formation of parish pastoral councils at individual churches; the councils would create a formal link between the parish priest and the flock.

Some critics contend the laity's voice is being ignored in the current crisis. But it also is true, observers say, that the Catholic laity has neglected its role in church affairs up to now.

Wellesley-based Voice of the Faithful is the most prominent independent group that is trying to change that. It has received national media attention and has attracted e-mail inquiries from around the country. The organization seems to have tapped pent-up demand. A member of a Missouri parish wrote a message on the organization's electronic bulletin board recently, asking if the group had started printing up bumper stickers.

A Sherborn lawyer, David Zizik, who is the vice chairman of the parish pastoral council at St. Theresa's Church, saw the parish councils as a natural way to give voice to the flock. But the archdiocese struck down his proposal to form a high-level archdiocesan committee representing parish councils.

"It's really a shame that it took a crisis like this to get the laity to wake up to the need to have a say in the church," said Zizik. Now that lay people are clamoring to give voice, his mission is to persuade the hierarchy to engage in a formal dialogue with lay groups, he said.

"It just heightens frustration every day that goes by," he said, "that there is no sign of efforts by the archdiocese to rebuild trust."

Donna Morrissey, spokeswoman for the Boston archdiocese, did not return a telephone call.

Rebuilding trust will be one of the top priorities when the US Conference of Catholic Bishops meets in Dallas this week. The bishops will be voting on a draft proposal that would ask the pope to defrock every priest who abuses a minor in the future, as well as any priest who has abused more than one minor in the past.

At a noon Mass at St. Mary Church in Waltham last week, the Rev. Wendell Verrill stood before a sparse group of older communicants and offered prayers, including one that the bishops "restore some of the confidence that has been lost."

Paul Brady, the retired butcher, knelt in prayer alone as the Mass ended. Afterward, he said he wonders how the Catholic church and the Archdiocese of Boston will respond during the coming year.

"I still love the cardinal, and I pray for the cardinal," Brady said. "I hope that he will recognize the things that should be recognized -- but there's no indication that he has."

This story ran on page W1 of the Boston Globe on 6/9/2003.
Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

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