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.”

  • Back in Boston, Voice of the Faithful will roll out an initiative from its website in early June that will allow Catholics to channel their donations through an online credit-card process to groups such as Catholic Charities, which help the poor—and are separate from the dioceses’ coffers. Already, Call to Action organizers are planning to copy the tactic.
  • “People are ticked,” says Paul Baier, a 36-year-old Internet entrepreneur and venture capitalist who directs the Voices website and email list. “The laity will rise up. They are going through shock right now. But after they get through the denial, they will get really, really mad, because they have been lied to.”

    Baier practically chortles over what he envisions next: “What if 10 million people called the Vatican one week?”

    Organizing the laity, according to Baier, turns out to be one of those phenomena tailor-made for the Internet. First, it speeds up the organizing and informing process by two orders of magnitude, Baier says. “How in the hell did people do movements in the 1960s?” he laughs. “We’ve got this medium that’s 100 times faster and it’s free. And we’re talking about priests molesting kids. That kind of outraged email gets sent to people’s top five friends.”

    But it’s more than that, Baier says. Voice of the Faithful has stumbled onto the discovery that organizing a movement works so well on the Web because it is like eBay--it connects what he calls “disparate markets.” For example, not that many people want to buy and sell Pez dispensers. But for the small number that do, eBay connects them. Same goes for angry Catholics. Perhaps 30% of American Catholics are truly outraged over the pedophilia crisis, Baier says. But only, say, 5% are outraged and want to do something about it. “We’re pulling the 5% out of every parish who want to take action on this issue,” says Baier.

    The question is, however, what will all of this add up to? The Rev. Thomas Reese, a prominent Catholic analyst who is editor of America magazine, is hopeful—but ultimately skeptical.

    “For generations, we’ve programmed these people that they can’t do anything without a priest,” he says. “And if you call a meeting, who comes? The moderate middle that has a life only rarely comes out. It’s the people on the extremes who show up. Essentially, what people want is to be listened to, to be taken seriously, and to have someone else take care of the problem.”

    Reese says, for example, that after the Second Vatican Council, which lasted from 1962-65, dioceses began trying to democratize more. The church newspapers began publishing financial reports, but they were so complicated that nobody could understand them. Finally, nearly every diocese stopped printing the reports. The result? “They each got two letters of complaint about it and that was the end.”

    Church officials are also dubious about the laity's resolve. "It’s very hard to react to something that people are just planning. If these people want their voices to be heard—-well, those voices are always heard," says Monsignor Frances Maniscalco, spokesman for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

    At the same time, he acknowledged that the Internet has changed the dynamic between officials and the laity since 1993, when the crisis raged before. "In 1993, how would I know what the Boston papers saying? Today I can get up every day and read them [online] as if they were being delivered to my door."

    Might staunch church supporters use the Web for a counter-movement? Apparently they are trying. William Donohue, the voluble and controversial president of the conservative Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, says his members are coming to him with petitions to defend the church hierarchy.

    "They mean well," Donohue says, "but they're in over their heads. One of them said, `We've got to defend the church,' and I said, `What exactly are you defending?' There's dead silence. They're rookies and they're nervous and they don't know what to do."

    Donohue says he would be delighted to support a Catholic lay movement, if one ever picks up steam-but not yet, because he is not sure how to react. The last few months have been tremendously painful, he says. "I don't want to hurt the Catholic Church, but I'm not going to defend the indefensible."

    That is why Voice of the Faithful may turn out to be the killer app of the Catholic laity movement. The group's slogan, taped to the wall of its meeting room, is straightforward and non-political: "Keep the faith, change the church." They aren't calling for women's ordination, or the end of celibacy, or the acceptance of divorce or artificial birth control.

    All they want is a voice in church governance-and if they don't get it, they say, they'll withhold donations.

    That's different from the other groups, which are widely perceived to be too liberal and out-of-step with ordinary Catholics.

    Voice of the Faithful was founded by Jim Muller, a cardiologist who 30 years ago helped found International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. The group, which grew to 135,000 members, was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1985.

    Baier believes Voice may grow much bigger and be far more powerful, largely because of its centrist message and partly because of the Web.

    In July, Voice will hold a convention in Boston that 5,000 people nationwide have already signed up for. Convention-goers plan to call for power-sharing with the laity that would include participating in leadership appointments and demanding open meetings in parishes and dioceses. Again, Baier says, word of the convention and the arrangements and planning are happening on the Web.

    Cardinal Bernard Law responded several weeks ago by sending a directive forbidding such organizing. But he didn't read about any of it on the Web. He didn't see any of the irate messages and boards, the planning-or the hopes and prayers for a new, better church.

    Why? The Cardinal doesn't have an email address.

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