May 9, 2002

At the Vatican last month, several U.S. cardinals said they supported greater involvement of lay people in the church. But they didn't put it in writing.

In fact, those words were cut from the cardinals' final communique at the historic two-day summit on clergy sexual abuse called by Pope John Paul II.

The lack of change from the top down has ignited a grassroots movement of U.S. Catholics seeking a greater voice in the decision-making of the church.

In Belleville, Ill., Catholics are organizing a diocesan-wide synod only for lay people. In Boston, a grassroots group called Voice of the Faithful is drawing hundreds of Catholics to discussions about the role of the laity in the church.

Similar movements are emerging elsewhere. Catholics say bishops' mishandling of predatory priests is triggering the gatherings. They're demanding change and calling bishops to greater accountability, openness and at least some oversight by laity.

"Nobody speaks to us," said Lena Woltering, an organizer of the June synod in the Belleville Diocese. "It's gotten lay people to realize they need to take more responsibility for their church."

What separates the new Catholic groups from others is that most aren't seeking to change church doctrine. Instead, they're loyal Catholics fed up with the sex scandals, cover-ups and secrecy. Many wouldn't think of boycotting Mass or the collection plate to force change.

"The voices calling for lay participation are people who are fully in support of Catholic faith and morals," said the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of the conservative Catholic journal First Things.

"That's a really new development. These Catholics really want to help the bishops be more effective."

Ernie Corrigan, an organizer of Voice of the Faithful, is typical of these Catholics. He grew up Catholic, married in the church and raised four Catholic children. Until recently, he was a public relations adviser to Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law.

"We love the church and are pained by what we see happening," he said. "But the days are gone when Catholics will sit silently just because a bishop has spoken. We've changed, but it's going to be a long battle to get them to change."

Many U.S. Catholics were disappointed that the cardinals stopped short of endorsing a zero-tolerance policy that would oust any priests who molest from any kind of diocesan job. They're also outraged that some U.S. bishops want leeway in judging one-time offenses from the past.

The cardinals countered that they introduced stronger punishment for serial offenders: a quick procedure for defrocking such priests and returning them to the lay state. But for priests who aren't serial offenders, some bishops want the option of reassigning them to non-parish positions.

"Even if these guys are assigned administrative tasks in the church, they are still living public lives with clerical collars," said Dr. Deal Hudson, editor of the Catholic magazine Crisis.

"Any man with a collar who walks along a street or goes into a bookstore or goes into a movie should be a man that no one need fear."

Catholics needing to talk about the crisis have found few church leaders willing to listen, Corrigan said. Voice of the Faithful meets several times a week at St. John the Evangelist Church in Wellesley, Mass.

The group started spontaneously. As frustration with the hierarchy's response to the scandals grew, so did the group. It now draws 4,500 supporters from nearly every state. A national convention on the laity is planned for July.

"When the church leaders wouldn't listen, we found strength in listening to each other," Corrigan said. "People who thought that the temperature in Boston would have an impact on Rome discovered they were mistaken."

The scandals erupted in January in Boston and swept the country, leading to the removal of nearly 200 priests from their posts. Cardinal Law has withstood public pressure to resign, which grew more intense after court evidence indicated he had knowingly moved a priest who was a serial molester from parish to parish.

The cardinal drew further criticism last week after his lawyers, in legal documents, blamed "negligence" on the part of the priest's 6-year-old victim and the child's parents for contributing to the abuse.

"The Catholic laity is furious that their leaders aren't doing the right thing," Hudson said.

"Until that happens, the bishops are going to be under intense pressure."

Some Catholics believe that severe action is necessary to force change. In Boston, many Catholics say they won't give to Law's annual appeal.

The cardinal is hoping to raise $16 million, which is used to operate the archdiocese.

In Chicago, a group of prominent business leaders last week called on Catholics to boycott collection plates until the archdiocese adopts stricter policies on priests who molest. Among their demands: an independent audit of files on predator priests, full disclosure to law enforcement and removal of mandates that victims be silent as a condition of legal settlements.