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Spotlight Report

One year later, Voice of Faithful faces new tests

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 4/13/2003

"The problems aren't in the faith. The problems are in the human administration," said Voice of the Faithful president James E. Post. (Globe Staff Photo / David L. Ryan)

 VOTF membership
Source: Voice of the Faithful

 VOTF presence
Voice of the Faithful has groups in 25 states and Canada.

Affiliate groups
Mass. 60 Partial* 10
N.Y. 45 2 3
Calif. 14
Conn. 10 1 2
N.H. 9 1
Maine 4 1
Ohio 4 1
18 other states 26 3 9
Canada 1

1 Number of bishops who have banned VOTF from meeting on church property.
2 Number of meetings between bishops and VOTF representatives.
* Boston banned groups formed after October 2002.

Source: Voice of the Faithful

NORTH BABYLON, N.Y. -- Sleet was still coating the roads of central Long Island as the cars pulled into the parking lot outside a drab suburban high school and several hundred middle-aged Catholics filed into the auditorium to vent their frustration with the leadership of their church.

Among them was Dianne E. Cattrano, once a weekly communicant at Queen of the Most Holy Rosary Church, and now, on this stormy night in mid-March, joining with the hundreds of Catholics brought together by their horror at the failure of bishops to stop the abuse of minors by priests. ''I was having such trouble -- the last time I went to Mass, I got disgusted because the priest was making an excuse,'' said Cattrano, a preschool director from North Baldwin, N.Y. ''Catholic is what I am, and I'm not going to change that, but it's hard to go on if they're allowing these things.''

As she entered her first Voice of the Faithful meeting, Cattrano's words echoed the pain and anger that led a handful of Massachusetts Catholics to form the lay group a little over a year ago. But it is in places like this, far from Cardinal Law and Father Geoghan and the other figures in Boston's church drama, that the future of the lay movement is now unfolding.

After a year of energy and shock, of battling bishops and sharing stories, Voice of the Faithful is entering a new phase, a phase that its leaders freely admit will determine whether the organization survives.

The group has enjoyed a stunningly rapid rise to prominence, growing from nothing to a national organization, with global aspirations, that now claims 30,000 members with affiliates around the United States. Born after months of informal meetings in the basement of St. John the Evangelist Church in Wellesley, the organization is rapidly gaining the trappings of permanence: It has already raised about $650,000 to fund its operations and now has a paid staff of 12 and a bevy of volunteers working out of a 1,900-square-foot office above a day care center in Newton Upper Falls. And it is poised to launch a membership drive and to hire a development director as it seeks to demonstrate its significance, and staying power, in a vast global church.

But as the organization tries to make the transition from, in effect, a support group for unhappy Catholics into a real force for change, the group finds itself continually in conflict with the church hierarchy: Bishops have banned chapters in eight dioceses and largely ignored it in many others. Just within the last week, the organization's affiliate in Maine was forced to move a long-planned statewide meeting after that state's Catholic Charities agency decided to prohibit a meeting at a church-owned hall; the organization's New Hampshire affiliate called for the resignation of that state's top two bishops because of their roles in the sexual abuse crisis; and the organization in Massachusetts was rebuked by Bishop Richard G. Lennon, who refused, despite the grave budget crisis in the Boston Archdiocese, to accept money raised by Voice of the Faithful.

Fueled in its first year by the oxygen of free publicity, the organization now faces the challenge of continuing to grow as the intensity of news media coverage of the church crisis lessens, and as the obstacles to changing a 2,000-year-old church -- a church in which Americans make up just 6 percent of the population -- become ever more clear.

''I suspect that the church leadership is simply hoping that we will fade away and be gone, remaining just as a bad memory,'' said Dan Bartley, codirector of Long Island Voice of the Faithful. ''They are hoping for a return to the status quo, which gave us a system that abused our children and misspent our finances. But we do not want to return to the status quo.''

Membership growth has, in fact, slowed in places such as Boston, where the scandal built for a year and climaxed in Cardinal Bernard F. Law's resignation in December. The group is now growing most rapidly in dioceses where there have been highly publicized cases of sexual abuse by priests and public anger at bishops remains intense. The group has 1,200 members on Long Island, for example, and is growing rapidly throughout metropolitan New York and in California.

Some predict that growth will continue, as the movement expands in size and importance.

''The Catholic laity have been awakened by the clergy abuse crisis, as if from a long adolescent sleep, and the spirit of God will not allow them to doze off,'' asserts the Rev. Donald B. Cozzens, a visiting associate professor of religious studies at John Carroll University, a Jesuit institution in Cleveland. ''This is the laity's moment.''

But others are skeptical.

''The problem with democracy in the church is that it takes up too many evenings,'' said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, editor of America magazine, a Jesuit weekly. ''The difficulty organizations like Voice of the Faithful face is that most people don't want to run the church. They want to come to church to be nourished -- they don't want to come to church to have an argument.''

The group's own leaders freely acknowledge the challenges they face.

''As other world events overshadow the crisis in the church, and individual people tire of dwelling on this most unpleasant subject, it will be a great challenge to galvanize Catholics to effect the cultural change our church needs,'' said Melissa Ford Gradel, the regional coordinator of Voice of the Faithful in Brooklyn and Queens.

''Many abuse victims have found the courage and support they need to be agents of their own healing, and they are going to win whatever reparations they can through the legal system,'' Gradel said. ''So how can we keep Catholics focused on the more subtle underlying problems?''

But Voice of the Faithful has also been quietly talking with a number of bishops around the country. Most significantly, Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago recently spent two hours talking with its founder, Nobel Peace Prize-winning cardiologist James E. Muller. After the meeting, George's spokeswoman said the cardinal was now open to talking with local leaders of the group. But no bishop has actively engaged Voice of the Faithful in a discussion of structural change in the church -- the group's most controversial goal.

''One of the saddest stories in the history of the Catholic Church in the US will be the story of how some of the hierarchy responded to their people in troubled times,'' said the Rev. Ladislas M. Orsy, a visiting professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center and the canon lawyer advising Voice of the Faithful on its relationships with bishops. ''We live in an age of dialogue, when the pope himself goes out of his way to listen and to talk to non-Catholics and non-Christians. Yet, several bishops refused steadily to meet with their own people.''

The cold shoulder from the hierarchy is frustrating, said James E. Post, president of the organization, but will not cause its leaders lose heart or soften their message.

''A fair number of us are just plain stubborn,'' Post said. ''We can't give up on the church because we value the values, we value the beliefs, we have faith in the message. The problems aren't in the faith. The problems are in the human administration. And human administrations can be reformed, can be fixed, can be improved. All human institutions can be made better, and this one certainly needs to be made better.''

The group is determinedly centrist, and has avoided even discussing issues such as women's ordination or married priests, although repeated polls in recent decades have suggested that American Catholics overwhelmingly support such changes. But Voice of the Faithful leaders want to allow room in the organization for a wide variety of opinions, and fear that taking positions on such matters might weaken the group in the eyes of church officials.

So Voice of the Faithful remains focused on the three goals it outlined a year ago: to support victims of abuse, to support ''priests of integrity,'' and to shape ''structural change'' within the church. The group says it does not seek to change church doctrine, but merely to win a greater role for laypeople in church life.

The first two goals are noncontroversial and have won the group praise. Chapters around the country have been working to find ways to help victims, whose accounts of abuse were often disbelieved by the church, and aid priests, who now feel themselves suspect by virtue of their vocation.

The group's centrism has alienated some who want the organization to move more quickly and dramatically. But the sharpest critiques come from the church's orthodox wing.

A Pembroke woman, Carol McKinley has started an anti-Voice of the Faithful journal online, in which she maintains a running critique of the group as a front for liberal and even anti-Catholic organizations. Another website, Catholic World News, is hosting an online debate about the group, dominated by critics.

And Crisis magazine, a conservative Catholic publication, has sent out fund-raising appeals touting its willingness to go after Voice of the Faithful, which it calls an ''extreme dissident group.''

The leadership of the Boston Archdiocese has not resorted to such attacks, and Lennon recently met with Post. The Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, an archdiocesan spokesman, points out that the group is still just a small fraction of Catholics. The number of members the group claims in the archdiocese -- perhaps 10,000 people -- pales next to the 2 million Catholics in eastern Massachusetts, or the nearly 300,000 the archdiocese says show up at church each week.

''Using Voice of the Faithful's own membership numbers, it is clear that they represent a very small percentage of the Catholics in the Archdiocese of Boston,'' Coyne wrote in a letter to the Globe last Monday. ''While they are a voice of some of the faithful, they do not represent all of the faithful, many of whom do not approve of Voice of the Faithful or the tactics of its leadership.''

In an interview, Coyne was more conciliatory, saying Voice of the Faithful, ''arose from the natural emotions of frustration and anger that were the result of the crisis, and there are many good, faithful people who are doing a lot of work towards healing the victims and supporting the church and the clergy.'' But, Coyne says, ''there are positions that have been taken by the leadership that have not been helpful in terms of trying to bring about unity and reconciliation, but at times have been divisive. And there are still many questions that need to be resolved regarding the positions Voice of the Faithful holds on certain teachings of the church.'' He declined to be more specific.

Voice of the Faithful wins praise from several quarters, particularly victims.

''I've been at this 12 years, and I vividly recall when every letter we got from a Catholic layperson was hostile, but now the supportive letters outnumber the hostile ones 40 or 50 to one,'' said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. ''They helped create the climate that enables victims to come forward and break their silence, and the value of that is incalculable. And the bishops can't go about business as usual if the people in the pews are still asking the hard questions.''

The lay movement has also attracted the attention of scholars and has helped spur a new wave of theological research into the role of laypeople in Catholicism today. Muller, the founder, is at work on a book on the group with Charles Kenney, a former Boston Globe reporter; several other books on the Catholic laity are nearing publication.

Some scholars give the group credit for keeping Catholics in the church at a time when many are leaving.

''My initial reaction was that this [approach] is incredibly timid and deferential, but the longer it goes on, it becomes clear that what they really are doing is challenging the church on the authority issue, and therefore they are even more radical than they acknowledge being,'' said Paul Lakeland, chairman of the department of religious studies at Fairfield University in Connecticut, another Jesuit school, and the author of a new book on the Catholic laity.

The Rev. William A. Clark, an assistant professor of religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross, who has been closely following the development of Voice of the Faithful, argues that the group has actually improved the church's public image by reminding Catholics and non-Catholics that the church is held together by something more important than the power of its bishops.

''Keeping the idea that the church is more than the hierarchy in public view is a very important accomplishment,'' Clark said. ''These are people saying, `We're Catholic too, and we're just as angered,' and showing that the church has more depth to it than the bishops who responded so inadequately in the first place.''

The organization's new wave of leaders around the nation are under no illusion that change will come easily.

''I don't honestly think there will be true change in my lifetime -- I'm 32 -- but it's a matter of personal integrity: I want to stay in the church, and I can't do that unless I work for change,'' said Sandy M. Simonson of Phoenix, who helped form Voice of the Faithful's new affiliate in Arizona.

Simonson, a lifelong Catholic, has served as a Eucharistic minister and in other lay leadership roles in the church. ''I love the church, I really do . . .,'' she said, ''but my perspective is there is a serious problem in the culture of the church that goes way beyond the sexual abuse scandal.''

Michael Paulson can be reached by e-mail at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 4/13/2003.
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