Back in early March, a handful of enraged Boston Catholics met to vent their anger about the priest pedophilia scandal. They had to do something, they decided, to make the bishops realize how outraged they were. So they gathered email addresses from members of their parish in Wellesley, Mass.
Total collected that day: 50.
The 50 people from St. John the Evangelist Church in Wellesley forwarded that first irate email message to dozens of their relatives and friends, who sent it to their relatives and friends. Soon, the folks in Wellesley were so deluged with Catholics hitting “reply” and begging them to do something that they formed an organization called Voice of the Faithful and built a website.
Now, two months after forming, Voice of the Faithful has collected more than 10,000 email addresses and is sending out a weekly newsletter urging ordinary Catholics to join their movement. Two weeks ago, when 6,000 people were on the email list, Voice of the Faithful asked recipients to call the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington to register their anger—and 300 people dialed the phone that week. The next week, with 9,000 people on the list, Voice leaders suggested they send donations to Survivors’ Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). Thousands of dollars poured in. Meanwhile, 350 parishes around the country contacted Voice to start local chapters.
In the mid-1980s and the early 1990s, when the first two rounds of publicity about the priest pedophilia scandal hit the church, people couldn’t easily learn what was going on in their church, across the country or the world. As a result, they couldn’t do much about it. And that may be why so little changed.
This time around, the Web is making it possible for the laity to organize and--quite possibly—finally make their church into the democracy many of them desire.
In Madrid, a worldwide group called the International Initiative for a New Council in the Catholic Church, comprised of laity, clergy, and bishops, is calling for a Third Vatican Council that would shape “a renewed image of a Church responding to internal challenges and to situations in the world.” The group is using email to invite people to sign a petition addressed to the Pope. Between April 24, when the petition was launched on the website, and May 16, 1,271 people from 43 countries have added their names and email addresses.
In Kansas City, the liberal weekly National Catholic Reporter is promoting a "blueprint for Vatican III" which summarizes feedback from Catholics who were asked to list issues a future church Council should address. It calls for married clergy, democratic church leadership, acceptance of homosexuality, and more. The paper’s website provides a copy of the blueprint. More important, users can click on a form to submit their own Vatican III suggestions.
In Chicago, the 25,000-member Catholic reform group Call to Action, for the first time since its founding 20 years ago is seeing a groundswell of support because of use of the Internet for information-sharing. Spokesman Don Wedd says downloads of material from the Call to Action site doubled between February and March and continue to rise.
In New Jersey, Mary Lou Hartman had been toiling in relative anonymity for years as president of the Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church, whose main goal is to promote a democratic church. Since the winter, the group's site has included links to allow visitors to join an email forum, download form letters to be sent to local bishops, and join an international movement to write a new Catholic constitution. Now, because of the swell of anger worldwide, the site is being linked to from websites that are sending it more and more traffic.
“Many of us had email in 1993, but I don’t think the Europeans were into email then,” Hartman says. “And now, we have access to news wires. So it’s just a much larger access pool. We can do more careful planning, and we’re able to respond faster and be better informed. I think the secrecy of much of the church’s life is shrinking because of it.”
On message boards around the Web, Catholics are gathering to vent and to strategize in ways that were inconceivable only a few years ago. On the Beliefnet discussion boards, for example, member evc writes: “Stay away from church this Memorial Day weekend. Take this opportunity to show the Roman Catholic hierarchy how you feel about their handling and mismanagement of the current scandals. Join the protest.”