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Spotlight Report

  Joan Vennochi  

Catholic Church still won't listen


CAN A CHURCH filled with people lose its voice?

Yes. It can happen when an institution like the Catholic Church reveals itself as morally corrupt because it failed to protect children and then tried to cover up its failure. It can happen when church leaders, their moral authority up in incense, still decline to listen to the people who fill the pews and to the priests who preach from the parish pulpits. The world, in turn, may then decline to listen to that institution.

Individual Catholics will bring their own assessment to the aftermath of revelations about the clergy sexual abuse crisis in their church. Here is mine: In the Boston area, where the story first unravelled on the pages of the Globe, there seemed to be collective relief when Cardinal Bernard Law finally stepped down and Bishop Richard G. Lennon became interim administrator of the Archdiocese of Boston. But now, initial feelings of emotional and religious rebirth are giving way to something less promising and optimistic.

Lennon is rejecting money from Voice of the Faithful, the lay group formed in response to the sexual abuse scandal. In that rejection lies a broader message from unyielding superiors: The Catholic Church will not take money from people who want to change it, even if those people still call themselves Catholic.

In clear defiance of that stern and forboding message, members of the board of Catholic Charities voted to accept a $35,000 charitable contribution from Voice of the Faithful, saying their obligation to the poor is greater than their obligation to their bishop. As James E. Post, president of Voice of the Faithful, put it, ''It is very unfortunate that Bishop Lennon put the board in this position of having to choose between the bishop and the people.''

As Catholics and the Catholic hierarchy stare each other down, what about the institution each of them represents? Its foundation cannot help but weaken, along with its voice. And that is happening on a grand, international scale. Pope John Paul II was ignored, in some cases ridiculed, when he spoke out against an American war with Iraq. He was accorded the same lack of respect as the governments of France and Germany -- maybe even less respect.

It is clear that a church that not only stood by but protected child molesters has a long way to go before it can reclaim the moral high ground on any subject, from war and peace to the evils of gambling .

At the same time as its official moral voice is reduced to a whisper, the church in the Boston area is also losing its ability to make good things happen through its charitable endeavors. The clergy abuse scandal didn't just take away the Boston archdiocese's moral authority, it took away its economic authority. It is now forced to close schools and churches and cut back on programs for the needy. That weakens its overall influence, at a time of budget cuts and economic hardship.

You do not have to belong to Voice of the Faithful -- and I do not -- to understand what its members are trying to do and to watch, with dismay, as the church hierarchy tries to marginalize this group. On one hand, you know that the church hierarchy is probably thinking: Here is a tiny component of the American Catholic Church, which in turn makes up only 6 percent of a 2000-year-old institution. But in doing so, they underestimate the disenchantment, the malaise, and, in some cases, the paralysis that followed the last year's ugly revelations.

It gave many of us an excuse to spend Sunday mornings somewhere other than church. And once a person stops attending Sunday Mass, it becomes normal to stay away rather than go. It becomes easier to convince yourself you can find religion outside the walls of any church, particularly one led by people who appear threatened by any effort to change them.

Catholics still go to church, and they will no doubt fill the churches this Easter season. There is certainly plenty to pray for these days. They give voice to a church that squandered its own official voice and doesn't seem to understand that listening is the way to get it back.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is

This story ran on page A17 of the Boston Globe on 4/15/2003.
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