Bishop Walter Edyvean sat directly in front of me across an enormous conference table in the wood-paneled boardroom of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. Over his shoulder, out a huge picture window, I could almost see down onto Commonwealth Avenue, where an encampment of journalists had maintained a vigil ever since the horrific news broke about the sexual abuse of children by priests and the cover-up by the Church hierarchy. The almost-daily revelations of new atrocities, first in the Boston Globe and then in papers across the country, triggered a widespread sense of shock and disbelief among the faithful. The leaders of an institution dedicated to promoting Christian values had desecrated those values. It was as if firefighters had become arsonists, or doctors had intentionally spread disease.
The shocking cover-up of sexual abuse by the hierarchy had caused me to question the foundation of my cultural and spiritual identity. The Catholic Church had guided and nurtured me in many ways. I was a graduate of St. Joan of Arc Grade School, Cathedral High School, and of the University of Notre Dame before attending the Johns Hopkins Medical School. An uncle was a priest, an aunt a nun. My father had been the medical director of a large Catholic hospital.
But I knew that I could not remain and simply accept what had happened.
And so I helped form a grassroots organization called Voice of the Faithful. We are a group of devout Catholics, now more than thirty thousand strong, with a determination to be heard. We started out meeting in a suburban church basement and now have nearly two hundred active parish affiliates from Florida to Alaska.
Early on, the founding members of Voice of the Faithful decided that our historical docility had contributed to the cover-up and it must end. We saw our meeting with Bishop Edyvean as a crucial step toward that goal. We wanted to be embraced by the hierarchy of the Boston archdiocese, to work in partnership with them on the local level. Our goal was to forge a trusting relationship with the cardinal and others in the hierarchy so that the laity could gain a seat at the table, become part of the process of decision-making, and help build a better Church. We would approach this goal with a cooperative tone, yet if our voice was not heard, it would rapidly become clear that we had moved beyond our prior "pay, pray, and obey" mentality.
Our group was just a few months old, and we greatly valued this first opportunity to meet face-to-face with a member of the hierarchy. As Vicar General, second in command to Cardinal Bernard Law, Bishop Edyvean was a powerful figure. Now in his early sixties, he had a reputation as an erudite, courteous man who was particularly well connected, having served for some years at the Vatican. In Boston he played a behind-the-scenes role, implementing the policies of Cardinal Law.
Coming to the meeting that day, I believed that we had much to offer to the hierarchy. I felt a sense of exuberance for I knew we could help. I was sure that if the local hierarchy were to embrace us it would be a signal to countless Catholics deeply troubled by the scandal that there was a genuine desire to work with the laity to improve the Church. My excitement approaching the meeting was tempered, however, by reports we had been hearing that Bishop Edyvean was working back channels against us, presumably at Cardinal Law's instruction.
We began the meeting with a prayer, led by the bishop, and then exchanged pleasantries.
Having been awarded honorary degrees from five Catholic colleges, I was accustomed to affable discussions with Church officials, and I hoped this meeting would not be an exception. But the mood quickly grew tense as the younger priest, Father O'Connell, attacked our group, stating that we had no right to solicit funds from the laity, since that right was reserved for the Cardinal. He implied that our very existence somehow undermined the leadership of Cardinal Law.
While I was surprised by his arrogance, and the hostile tone he had suddenly injected into the meeting, our prior discussions had provided a ready answer to his charge. We replied that we supported the authority of the hierarchy but that as lay Catholics we had a right and even a responsibility to help our Church in its time of crisis. We only sought funds from those who did not want to contribute to the Cardinal's appeal becauseof the scandal. And we would turn the funds over to the Cardinal for use for the charitable works of the church.
We also noted that in acting secretly without adequate cooperation with the laity, Cardinal Law and other members of the hierarchy had committed grave errors of judgment. Cardinal Law and others had transferred many priests who had sexually molested children to other parishes where they continued as sexual predators. The Cardinal had not only transferred these men, but he had led a massive cover-up as well. We noted that our group had been formed in response to these failures, which indicated a greater need for cooperation with, rather than subjugation of, the laity.
The accusatory tone set by Father O'Connell made it easier for us to pose the difficult question for which we needed an answer.
"Bishop Edyvean," I said, "we've heard that you're blocking us in parishes, that you're calling pastors and telling them not to let Voice of the Faithful meet on church property." I looked him in the eye and paused a moment, then asked him directly: "Are you blocking us?"
The bishop hesitated, then replied, "There are a lot of issues we have with your organization. We have to know what you're about."