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.

"We're doing this to get their attention," said Michael Tario, 55, a lifelong Catholic who attends Mass every day. "People are accusing us of trying to bankrupt the church. What we really want is to make it better - safer for children, healing for victims."

Liberal Catholics are calling church leaders to allow priests to marry and women to be ordained. Representatives from 17 activist groups affiliated with Catholic Organizations for Renewal met recently in Alexandria, Va., to form a collective response to the church crisis.

"Bishops are finally having to answer for the abuse of power, the secrecy and lack of accountability," said Linda Chavez, executive director of the Women's Ordination Conference. "Until this point, their response has been that how they handled things was their business and nobody else's."

The U.S. bishops' Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse is developing a national policy to be considered at the bishops' June meeting in Dallas. Under consideration: a national office with lay experts to consult with bishops on sex-abuse complaints.

That may be a sign that the public outcry is having an impact, said Dean Hoge, a sociologist at the Catholic University of America. But to produce any long-term change, he said, the groups will need to think beyond the bishops' meeting in June.

"If the bishops don't make significant changes in June, people shouldn't get discouraged," he said.

Neuhaus said he expects that, in the future, bishops will be increasingly collaborative in their decision-making on these cases and on other matters of faith. Some dioceses already involve lay people in oversight of allegations of sexual misconduct.

"Many bishops get themselves into deep trouble by unilaterally making decisions which might be better made by inviting the wisdom and reflection of the wider church," he said.

Law has ordered Boston-area priests to ignore calls by the laity for an association of parish pastoral councils, made up of volunteer lay members who aid their parish. Some dioceses around the country already have similar councils. And lay people serve on the boards of most parishes in the United States.

But not all Catholics believe that giving lay people greater authority in the church is the answer to the present crisis.

"It has to be a person who won't just rubber-stamp what the clergy say," said Dr. Jim Langley, who attends St. Rita's Catholic Church in Dallas.

Dallas Bishop Charles V. Grahmann has come under fire from Catholics upset by his decision to reassign two priests who didn't fully implement the diocese's safe environment policy. Members of St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church launched a public campaign to keep their priest, but the bishop didn't bow to the pressure.

"The church isn't a democracy. But when you have leaders so off base, what do you do?" said church member Frank Geis. "How can lay people have a voice? That's the struggle in the Catholic Church."

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