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Catholic group accused of not supporting abuse victims

PROVIDENCE - As members of Voice of the Faithful met at the convention center for seminars and award presentations, celebrating the group's fifth year, people who said they were victims of priests' sexual abuse gathered outside and criticized the group for falling back on its original pledge to support them and failing to express outrage at a new report citing higher numbers of priests accused of sexual abuse in Rhode Island.

Voice of the Faithful, a lay Catholic reform group, which once was on the crest of the effort to prosecute abusive priests, did not respond to the report during the conference attended by 600 to 700 people from across the nation, said John Moynihan, spokesman for Voice of the Faithful.

"We've set an agenda [for the conference] and that's the agenda we're keeping," he said. "We just haven't had the time to absorb it."

The report, released by a victim advocacy organization Friday, said that between 1971 and 2007, 95 priests in Rhode Island were accused of sexual assault or sexual misconduct toward children. In 2004, it was reported that 56 priests had been accused of sexual abuse of a minor between 1950 and 2002.

"What must seem like a bombshell to Rhode Island citizens may seem to [Voice of the Faithful] members as yet another disturbing revelation in a long litany of them," said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, who said he was a victim of abuse and who joined a dozen other protesters on the sidewalk outside the convention center.

The convention took place as Voice of the Faithful, which now claims 35,000 members worldwide, has faded from the spotlight and is dealing with a significant lack of funding. Board chairman William Casey has said the group is having trouble adjusting to planning long-term strategy as the immediate anger over the scandal has subsided.

There was little sign that the group was looking for change yesterday, the second day of its two-day conference. The day began as it had been planned for weeks, with a group prayer and presentation of awards to activists.

Many people at the conference said they knew too little about the report by to comment on it.

"I haven't seen the paper yet," said Mary Freeman, the convention chairwoman, as she prepared hosts for communion. "I've been up all morning, chairing and conducting ceremonies up onstage."

Such lukewarm reaction to the report from a group founded in a Wellesley church basement in 2002 by outraged lay Catholics was indicative, some members and critics said, of what they called a growing lack of interest by the organization in supporting those who have been abused.

"You would think that at least it would have been mentioned inside," said Skip Shea, an abuse survivor from Oxbridge, who stood outside the convention center at lunchtime, holding posters depicting themselves and other victims.

The group's original agenda has been "hijacked by those who've been sitting and talking with their bishops rather than supporting the victims of the abuse," said another protester, Michael Sweatt, a former member of the group from Portland, Maine, who said he was sexually abused as a child at the Jesuit school he attended. Although Sweatt's group distributed leaflets at the conference inviting the attendees to join the survivors, only five or six had come outside.

"I am surprised," said Kristine Ward, a member of Voice of the Faithful from Dayton, Ohio, who had stepped outside to talk to the abuse victims. "We will not be successful as an organization if we forget the survivors. I very much urge my own organization to stay true to its goal."

But inside, many of those who attended the convention said Voice of the Faithful stood by its stated goals, which, in addition to supporting abuse victims, include supporting priests who fight to stop abuse and encouraging the Catholic Church to become more transparent and to allow a expanded involvement of laity in its administration.

"Our goal is to stand by those who have been abused, and I feel that we have," said Moynihan.

A woman who had traveled from Lawrence, Mass., to attend the convention agreed.

"I see no sign that Voice of the Faithful is lessening its support for the survivors," said the woman. She said she had planned to attend a candlelight vigil honoring victims of abuse outside the convention center Friday night, but was deterred by the weather.

"In the rain, I did not go," she said.

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