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Spotlight Report

Panel ponders future of church

Proper direction after scandal gets Cambridge airing

By Douglas Belkin, Globe Staff, Globe Columnist, 3/20/2002

CAMBRIDGE - A panel of high-profile Catholics weighed in last night on how the Boston Archdiocese and the Roman Catholic Church should emerge after the pedophile priest scandal.

Among the answers: less power in the priesthood. More power to the people.

Mary Jo Bane, a Harvard professor of public policy and management who has called for Cardinal Bernard F. Law to resign, compared the cumulative effect of widening revelations about sexual abuse of minors to the Vatican's stand against birth control in the late 1960s.

Back then, she said, angry Catholics did one of two things: They left the church or stayed and ignored the pope's opinion. In both cases, she said, they lost faith in the credibility of the hierarchy.

''And they practiced the exit strategy,'' she said.

Bane doesn't see the same thing happening this time around. ''Now people don't want to exit,'' she said. ''They want a voice.''

The discussion, which drew a crowd of 200 to the John F. Kennedy School of Government and television cameras from as far away as Britain, included the chief archdiocese spokesman, the Rev. Christopher Coyne, and Ray Flynn, the former Boston mayor and US ambassador to the Vatican, and a staunch Law supporter.

As pointed as the exchanges between Bane and Flynn occasionally became, they were placid compared with the questions from the audience. One man said he understood how Martin Luther felt before the Reformation, and another suggested Law's successor should have to ''campaign for cardinal.''

Coyne shrugged off most of the suggestions of a ''creeping democracy'' as it was termed by moderator David Nyhan, a former Boston Globe columnist and editor. But Coyne agreed that for the crisis in the priesthood to amount to a cleansing chapter in church history, not just a tragic one, the accumulated frustrations of Catholics should be aired. And Coyne conceded it would be a good thing if parishioners' voices were better reflected in parish decisions.

At one point, Bane characterized the modern-day priesthood as isolated and aging. ''If your life consists almost entirely of leading funerals, that's not a good job,'' she said. To reinvigorate seminaries, she suggested broadening the applicant pool.

Flynn, the most conservative of the panelists, condemned the notion and said some Catholics are trying to leverage this scandal to promote a liberal agenda.

Reform was needed, he said, but so is respect for tradition. And, he suggested, too much power in the hands of reformers like Bane would not be a good thing.

But the audience, by and large, was in no mood to defend the status quo or support what one audience member muttered was Flynn's ''stick your head in the sand'' reaction.

Flynn drew the audience's sharpest condemnation when he raised a question as to whether the abusive priests should truly be considered pedophiles.

''If a priest is with a 17- or 18-year-old, would you call that a pedophile?'' Flynn asked, his voice rising.

Amid a chorus of groans and boos, a woman's voice rose above the escalating din: ''No,'' she said. ''I'd call that a crime.''

Douglas Belkin can be reached at

This story ran on page A32 of the Boston Globe on 3/20/2002.
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