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Earlier stories

Spotlight Report

Lay groups find a forum outside closed doors

By Sacha Pfeiffer, Globe Staff, 6/13/2002

DALLAS - In the past it has been just another national conference, an often sleepy, little-noticed gathering of largely like-minded people discussing issues that tended to the esoteric. Public interest in the assemblies waxed and waned, depending on the topics. Media coverage was often sparse.

But as about 300 Roman Catholic bishops congregate here today for their semiannual conference, where they will debate a binding national policy on clergy sexual abuse, the meeting promises to be an event like no other the clerics have seen. Hundreds of lay people representing dozens of advocacy groups from around the country are also beginning to stream into Dallas for what is expected to be the most closely watched, best-attended gathering in the US Conference of Catholic Bishops' 85-year history.

The groups span a broad ideological spectrum, and they plan to raise an array of issues: the role of laity in church administration; the place of homosexuals, women, and married men in the priesthood; celibacy; and the responsibility of the bishops themselves in the crisis now shaking the church - a topic that appeared to be emerging yesterday as the focus of many advocates.

''The ones who covered this up and enabled this to happen are as, or more, culpable, but they fail to see that,'' said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, in an interview yesterday. Not addressing the role of the hierarchy ''is like going after the little street corner drug dealer and never after the source.''

Few of the groups were formally invited to the conference. And few, with the exception of a number of clergy sex abuse victims, have been granted a formal audience with the bishops.

Yet, on shoestring budgets or personal credit cards, they have booked the trip to Texas, renting hotel rooms as makeshift command centers. Denied face time with church officials, they have scheduled media breakfasts, news conferences, and prayer vigils in hopes of spreading their messages through the press.

Wearing green ribbons and blue armbands, they plan to network, lend support to victims of clergy sexual abuse, and offer advice to other groups in other cities. And by their mere presence they hope to influence the debates that will go on behind closed doors.

''We just want the bishops to physically see men, women, and children standing out there, all representative of the church, reminding them that we make up the church,'' said Jan Pruitt of We Are the Church, a tiny, six-week-old group based in Dallas that has printed 250 T-shirts emblazoned with slogans like ''We Trusted You'' and ''Shepherds are Supposed to Protect the Flock.''

''To me, it shows how deeply Catholic lay people care about their church and its governance,'' said Clohessy. Even if access to the bishops is limited, he added, ''simply raising these issues in any kind of public forum is extremely healthy.''

Some of the groups, like Call To Action, a national, Chicago-based organization with 25,000 members, founded in 1976, are long-established. Others, such as the Coalition of Catholic Faithful, an ad hoc umbrella committee for several conservative organizations, are small, new, and loosely defined.

Many of the groups are arriving with specific, dramatically differing proposals.

Gay rights advocates, like Dignity USA, continue to demand that the bishops apologize for blaming the scandal in part on homosexuals in the clergy. Conservative groups, including Concerned Roman Catholics of America, based in the Los Angeles area with some 400 members, will call for a ban on gays in the priesthood.

Others intend to raise broad, systemic issues, such as accountability, communication, and power within the church, reflecting the freewheeling debate about the future of Catholicism that has arisen in the wake of the scandal that flared in Boston in January and spread quickly across the nation.

For example, the local chapter of Voice of the Faithful, one of the newest and fastest-growing groups born by the crisis, has sent several people to Dallas in an effort to ''tip the scales of power'' by pushing for greater lay involvement in the daily operation of the church, including finances, personnel, and administration, according to spokesman Michael Emerton.

The call for lay decision-making in the church has been prompted by bishops' and cardinals' ''blatant coverup and mismanagement'' of clergy sex abuse, Emerton said in a news conference yesterday.

Some church critics said that one positive outcome of the sex abuse disclosures is that they have sparked wide public dialogue over a number of issues that had been percolating over several decades.

''One of the more interesting things about this whole crisis is that the laity who normally don't get too energized about ongoing doctrinal debate ... are now wanting a greater voice,'' said Michele Dillon, author of ''Catholic Identity: Balancing Reason, Faith and Power'' and an associate professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire. ''I think it has focused people.''

It has also caused friction. Witness the complaints by some church officials that some groups are taking advantage of the current situation to push for radical changes that would fundamentally alter core church values.

Among the organizations proposing dramatic shifts in church policy are the Federation of Christian Ministries, founded in 1969 by married priests to advocate the ordination of women and married men; CITI Ministries, also known as Rent-a-Priest, a Framingham, Mass.-based group that supports reinstating married priests and removing mandatory celibacy and gender requirements from the priesthood; and FutureChurch, a Cleveland-based group that calls for ''opening the priesthood to all the baptized.''

Urging a return to the church's traditional roots are groups like Roman Catholic Faithful, based in the Springfield, Ill., diocese, which demands that ''bishops be held accountable and act as so-called moral leaders,'' according to Stephen Brady, the group's president.

Specifically, Brady said, bishops should ''enforce and follow church teachings, especially [on] homosexuality, in light of abuse cases that, as we all know, turn out to be mostly teenage boys advanced on by homosexual clergy.''

Still, argued Linda Pieczynski of Call to Action, conservative or liberal, progressive or retrograde, ''Nothing should be off the table in this discussion. Nothing.''

Dillon, meanwhile, questions whether the large gathering of advocacy groups will influence the bishops' thinking, or simply make for dramatic television. Some group members acknowledged that their activities in Dallas will be geared toward attracting the attention of the media.

Unlike past conferences where the media presence consisted of a few religion writers, the number of credentialed reporters at this meeting - 750 - could be more than double the number of bishops expected to attend.

''It's certainly spectacular from a media standpoint to see all these hundreds of Catholics arriving in buses,'' said Dillon. But coming to Dallas ''in and of itself is not going to achieve anything other than put pressure on the bishops. And I don't think the bishops are going to be impacted whether 5,000 or 10,000 people show up. They already know that the laity across America are very annoyed with what has happened.''

But, she added, the conversations spurred by the conference have the potential to create lasting change.

Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached at

This story ran on page A24 of the Boston Globe on 6/13/2002.
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