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Editorial: Room for BC

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Spotlight Report

  Eileen McNamara  

Church ills run deep


ardinal Bernard Law is right about one thing: His resignation would not cure what ails the Roman Catholic Church. Myopia is a symptom of failing vision; it is not the underlying disease.

If the resignation of one man is all that comes of the hierarchy's complicity in the crimes of the Rev. John Geoghan, then the church will have stemmed a scandal but missed an opportune moment to examine its soul.

Official tolerance of pedophilia is only the most obvious sign of institutional dysfunction unearthed by the thousands of pages of documents unsealed, over the objections of the Boston Archdiocese, in civil lawsuits against the defrocked priest and his cardinal. Throwing Law out might make Geoghan's victims and outraged Catholics feel better, but it will do nothing to reform the systemic ills plaguing the church.

It is easier to decry the coverup by the cardinal than it is to address the conspiracy of silence by dozens of priests and parishioners who suspected Geoghan of child abuse across three decades but were intimidated into secrecy by the church's longstanding culture of blind obedience.

It is easier to denounce the cardinal for placing his sympathy for a deviant priest above his obligation to protect his flock than it is to question how an all-male, celibate clergy possibly could have offered the diversity of views that might have saved those children from Geoghan and Law from himself.

It is easier to condemn the lengths to which the cardinal went to keep a man like Geoghan in the priesthood than it is to confront the lengths to which the church goes still to keep women like Susan Troy out.

Those broader discussions are unlikely to occur at a chancery now in crisis mode, but they are on the agenda in Troy's suburban living room, where the Weston Jesuit School of Theology graduate leads a gathering of women in the liturgy on the first Monday of every month.

This is the Catholic Church, too, and the gathering of the faithful is replicated in private homes across the world where women called to, but barred from, the priesthood celebrate their vocations at a comfortable distance from outmoded hierarchical rules.

There is no pretense here that Troy is a priest in the ordained sense; the bread these women break is consecrated by nothing more, or less, than their faith. The conviction that Troy is a priest in the spiritual sense comes not from any formal validation by the church but from the affirmation of those in her living room.

Troy and the women who worship with her support efforts to open ordination to women and married men, but they use their time together not to draft petitions but to practice their religion as they understand it. "This group affirms my faith and strengthens it in response to these embarrassments," says Peggie Thorp, who is writing a book, tentatively titled "Why We Stay," about the decision of progressive Catholic women not to leave for more liberal Christian denominations.

"I was born into Catholicism," says Luise Dittrich. "That's the way the voice of God came into my life. I'll be damned if they'll drive me out."

Tricia Joyce is a convert to Catholicism, attracted to its values of community and commitment to the poor. Like other women in the group, she attends Mass at her parish church and admires its priests. But, in Troy's living room, she engages in the kind of dialogue absent in the institutional church. "Catholicism for me is not about man-made rules; it's not about who can and cannot be a priest," she says. "It's about my faith. Part of my faith is the belief that the Church will do the right thing. Eventually."

Opening the Catholic hierarchy to those who know instinctively that protecting children takes precedence over shielding pedophiles could take generations, these women acknowledge. But in places like Susan Troy's living room, says Linda Gallinaro, "We are rescuing the faith while the institution of the church straightens itself out."

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 1/27/2002.
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