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Spotlight Report

Lay reform groups, priests are reassessing their roles

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 12/15/2002

David Zizik of Sherborn founded the Parish Leadership Forum. (Globe Staff Photo / Dominic Chavez)

Jim Post, president of Voice of the Faithful, said the group will push for change in the church to give laity more voice. (Globe Staff Photo / Tom Landers)

A small gathering of Boston-area Catholics grew into Voice of the Faithful, a nationwide lay reform group.  
Coverage of Voice of the Faithful

A year ago, Jim Post was just a churchgoing management professor at Boston University, David Zizik a lawyer who headed his parish council, the Rev. Robert W. Bullock a parish priest with an interest in interfaith relations.

But as revelations began to emerge about a dark history of abuse and coverup by their church, Post, Zizik, and Bullock, like thousands of other Catholic laypeople and priests, joined a struggle with an uncertain goal: to change whatever it was that allowed their beloved Catholic Church to protect abusive priests at the expense of vulnerable children.

On Friday, in an astonishing development triggered in part by the uprising of laypeople and priests, Pope John Paul II accepted the resignation of Cardinal Bernard F. Law, the longtime archbishop of Boston, who had come to symbolize a crisis that has shaken the world's largest Christian denomination.

And now, a new breed of reluctant activists faces a challenging question: Can they, and should they, continue to battle, now that their primary foe is gone?

''At this point, everybody is feeling a mixture of being sad and hopeful, and there certainly is a sense that people would like to get on with the healing,'' said Mary Jo Bane, a professor of public policy at Harvard University and a member of the parish council at St. William Church in Dorchester.

In late January, Bane was one of the first prominent Catholic voices to call on Law to resign, but she was also among those who worried that Law's resignation might end any momentum for change.

''My guess is that, both among priests and laypeople, things will settle down a bit, and they'll want to give the new guy a chance,'' she said. ''But the pressure brought by priests and laypeople was not trivial in bringing about this first step in the process of change. They have seen that they can be effective, and I think that could give people hope of bringing about more permanent change to the structure.''

As news of Law's resignation spread, groups forged or strengthened in this year's crisis said they intend to continue to push for change. Some said they want other bishops to resign; others want to push for structural change in the church.

But many acknowledged that there is some tension between their newfound sense of power and their desire to resume a familiar existence.

''There are days when I wake up and just wish I had never gotten involved in any of this, because it can be terribly frustrating, and it seems like it will take decades to improve,'' said Zizik, the top layman on the parish pastoral council at Saint Theresa Church in Sherborn.

In April, he incurred the wrath of Law by proposing to form an association of parish pastoral councils, at which lay leaders from around the archdiocese would talk. Zizik later agreed to form a different group, the Parish Leadership Forum, which Law deemed canonically acceptable.

''There are other days when I see progress, in real ways, through discussions with individuals,'' Zizik said. ''If we just have more discussion, and more openness, about day-to-day problems in the church, then when more difficult problems come along, we'll have a basis for a solution.''

The group perhaps most empowered by this chaotic year was also among the most damaged: diocesan priests. Many priests have been demoralized and depressed by disclosures that their fellow priests had behaved so badly, and they have been hurt by feelings that they themselves are suspect simply because of their vocation.

But priests have also had a dramatic impact. Many scholars believe it was the decision of 58 Boston-area priests to sign a letter last week calling for Law to resign that helped persuade the Vatican that Law had to go.

''A bishop who loses the support of his priests can no longer continue as bishop of his diocese,'' said the Rev. Richard P. McBrien, a theologian at the University of Notre Dame. ''To figure out what happens next, I would look not so much at what bishops will do, but at the diocesan presbyterates,'' the priests of each diocese.

The Rev. Robert Silva, president of the National Federation of Priests' Councils, said that other priests will be emboldened to speak out, as a result of the role of Boston priests in Law's resignation.

''To be quiet in the face of what hinders our mission ... is not a good thing,'' Silva said. ''It takes courage to speak, but we need to speak.''

Bullock helped to found the Boston Priests Forum, which says it includes about 300 Boston priests. He said there is no going back to an era when priests said nothing about a culture they thought was wrong. The Priests' Forum recently approved a new constitution and is planning to elect leaders early next year.

''There should be more openness, more mutual accountability, and more candor between priests and their bishop,'' Bullock said. ''Cardinal Law did not listen to what we thought and what we experienced.

''Something has to change,'' said the pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows in Sharon. ''There has to be a good deal more listening to and learning from the priests.''

Bullock said priests will also have to change their own behavior as a result of the scandal.

''There is some form of clericalism in all denominations, but it's epidemic in Catholicism, that tendency toward being secretive and privileged and entitled,'' he said. ''And it's that clericalism of the priesthood that contributed enormously to this crisis. We need a radical change. We all have collective responsiblity for creating the environment where this took place, and we have to examine that.''

Victims of clergy sexual abuse, who before this year often suffered with the sense that their allegations were not taken seriously, say they hope laypeople and priests will remain energized.

''Hopefully, the developments in Boston in recent weeks will embolden Catholic priests and other church employees to aggressively voice the anguish of regular Catholics to their bishops [and] encourage regular Catholics to seek a greater voice within the church,'' said Mark Serrano of Leesburg, Va., a member of the board of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.

Catholics also need to ''use their principles of mercy to support abuse survivors and empower prosecutors to ... to seek the full truth about this national tragedy that is still hidden behind chancery walls,'' Serrano said.

Voice of the Faithful, the major lay organization formed out of the crisis, plans to soldier on. The organization now says it has 25,000 members nationwide. Just last week it received approval from the IRS as a charitable organization, allowing it to accept tax-deductible contributions, and the organization has been working to strengthen affiliates in California.

''It's been very clear that the cardinal's presence was a focal point for survivors and for the laity, in that he personified all of the worst features of the church, in terms of the obsessiveness with secrecy, the defensiveness, the legal stonewalling, and so forth,'' said Post, the president of Voice of the Faithful.

The group is facing a problem of burnout among some of its founding members, and it plans to hold elections soon to choose a new set of leaders, Post said. But he said that the group will continue to push for structural change in the church, to give laity more voice.

Voice of the Faithful's founder, Dr. James E. Muller, said he has been concerned about the impact of Law's resignation on the empowerment of laypeople. But laypeople are now more involved in and aware of issues facing the church, he said.

''We were always aware of the danger that the passage of the discontent engendered by the presence of Cardinal Law would drain energy from the main goal of Voice of the Faithful: to provide a prayerful voice, attentive to the Spirit, through which the laity could participate in the guidance and governance of the Catholic Church,'' Muller said.

However, he said, the organization has focused on shaping structural change, rather than on calling for Law's resignation, a step it only took last Wednesday. Many issues, particularly in other dioceses, remain unresolved, Muller said.

''The laity, who are 99.9 percent of the church and the source of 100 percent of the money, have now experienced their power through Voice of the Faithful and other groups and will no longer be frightened or paralyzed by hopelessness,'' Muller said.

Michael Paulson can be reached at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 12/15/2002.
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