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Spotlight Report

Archdiocese shifts agenda of meeting

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 3/4/2002

Underscoring the severity of the crisis engulfing the Archdiocese of Boston, Cardinal Bernard F. Law has jettisoned the original agenda for his annual meeting with parish and lay leaders and is devoting the entire day to addressing the issue of clergy sexual abuse.

The meeting, scheduled for Saturday at the World Trade Center, is typically the single-largest gathering of Catholics in the archdiocese, and is this year expected to attract at least 2,500 people.

Law, who has in recent days met with priests throughout the archdiocese as well as with Catholic business leaders, has decided to turn the conference into a massive ''listening session'' at which select parishioners will be able to vent and then the cardinal will respond.

''The purpose is to provide an opportunity for participants to reflect on our life together as church, and to offer an opportunity for representatives from parishes across the archdiocese to express their concerns and questions about sexual abuse of minors by clergy, and how the issue has been managed,'' Donna M. Morrissey, Law's spokeswoman, said last week.

''The process will allow as many voices as possible to be heard.''

Morrissey said the archdiocese hopes to discuss with parish leaders child protection policies, training plans, outreach to victims, the plight of priests, and other issues associated with the clergy sexual abuse crisis.

This will be the 10th straight year that Law has held a large-scale meeting with parish leaders, including priests, church staff, and laypeople who serve on parish administrative and finance committees. In past years, the day has included workshops about challenges facing parishes; 22 workshops had been planned for this year.

But Law has decided that the issue of clergy sexual abuse, and how the church has handled pedophile priests, is so dominating the concerns of local Catholics that the entire day should be spent talking about that subject.

''This convocation cannot be a business-as-usual convocation,'' organizers wrote in a letter to parishes.

The archdiocese plans to divide participants in six groups and allow each group to talk with a facilitator about the crisis; each meeting will be attended, but not led, by a bishop.

Law will attend one of the listening sessions. One layperson from each parish, chosen by the parish priest, will get to attend the meeting with the cardinal.

At the end of the day, attendees will offer summaries of each session to the cardinal, and Law will respond in a closing speech.

This year's agenda was originally to include a Catholic Charities presentation on how to spot signs that a child is being sexually abused. Morrissey said the archdiocese expects instead to announce soon a program that will provide sexual abuse prevention and detection training in parishes.

The event is not open to the public - only those who are serving in parish leadership roles can get in through their parishes.

A coalition of groups critical of the cardinal are planning to demonstrate outside the convocation, advocating for the ordination of women, justice for sexual abuse victims, and other issues.

Russell W. Osborn, a member of the parish council at Immaculate Conception Church in Newburyport, welcomed the agenda change.

''This is such an overpowering happening, it's just as well that they're doing this,'' he said last week. ''We need this kind of thing.''

Osborn said that if he gets an opportunity to offer his opinion, he'll suggest the church talk about allowing priests to get married.

''I have been very much in favor of priests being allowed to be married,'' he said. ''They were allowed to get married until 1100, and I think that ought to be allowed again.''

Daniel C. Nelson, a member of the parish council at Most Precious Blood Church in Dover, said last week that his council had been hard at work preparing for the original agenda, which included how to rejuvenate the church in the third millennium. But, he said, he is pleased that the cardinal has set aside time to talk about abuse.

''It's appropriate - it's something that has to be talked about,'' he said.

Nelson also said that, if given a chance, he'd like to talk about the issue of priestly celibacy.

''I don't think this is what [church leaders] want to talk about, but I think we should talk about the future of the cleric: celibacy issues, married priests,'' he said. ''That type of discussion should take place.''

Michael Paulson can be reached at

This story ran on page A13 of the Boston Globe on 3/4/2002.
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