Dec. 19--Rank-and-file Roman Catholics driven by the clerical sex abuse crisis to fight for reform within the church are about to find out if their movement can handle success. Some Catholic observers have credited pressure from the laity, in particular the fast-growing group Voice of the Faithful, for playing a role in Cardinal Bernard Law's decision last week to resign as archbishop of Boston. Voice leaders issued a call for Law to step down two days before he quit.

"Much as the institutional church is loath to admit the influence of outside pressure, especially from the laity, this time the pressure worked," said the Rev. Thomas Doyle, a longtime adviser to abuse victims.

While others question the laity's influence, the fact remains that Law _ who tangled with Voice and was a prominent symbol of the church's mishandling of molestation claims _ is out of the picture.

The question now is whether the laity will stay energized--particularly in Boston, the archdiocese most affected by the crisis--in the wake of Law's departure. Deal Hudson, editor of the conservative Catholic magazine Crisis, says Law's situation means lay Catholics elsewhere "will be emboldened to make demands upon bishops and upon the Vatican."

But William Donohue of the Catholic League, an organization which defends the church, takes the opposite view. "They're toast," he says. "Let's face it. If you have a goal of reforming the church in the midst of crisis and the epicenter has imploded, what's left?"

What's left, says Voice of the Faithful President James Post, is the long-term aim of changing church government, which never revolved around Law's removal. The organization "is running a marathon, not a sprint," he says. "When you look at this crisis you see mismanagement of personnel, mismanagement of information and mismanagement of money. Those are the arenas in which Catholic lay people have enormous talents to contribute," says Post, a business professor at Boston University.

And that's what Voice is all about, he maintains, denying the charge of some conservatives and bishops that the group seeks to undermine church teachings and the hierarchy's spiritual authority.

Voice originated in open forums at a suburban parish early this year. It grew rapidly and by July drew 4,000 supporters from 35 states to its first national rally. Post is bullish about the group's prospects. He expects Law's permanent successor, who is still unnamed, will be more friendly toward the group.

Law rejected Voice's effort to channel $56,000 to designated Catholic causes. His interim replacement, Bishop Richard Lennon, will have to decide about another $50,000 in a few weeks.

Meanwhile, no bishops have lately joined those who forbid parishes to host Voice chapters. Also, the same day Law resigned, Voice of the Faithful learned it won federal tax-exempt status _ a key to fund-raising and financial survival.

Post says Voice's membership of 25,000-plus is still growing, particularly in the New York City area and California. He thinks California could become the 2003 equivalent of what Boston has been this year because the state is lifting the statute of limitations on abuse cases for one year. Dioceses there are bracing for an onslaught of lawsuits. "Who knows what will be revealed in these records?" Post said. "But no doubt a lot of ugly and painful information will be released."

University of Notre Dame historian Scott Appleby says that if Boston-style documents appear in other dioceses "we can predict greater impact for Voice of the Faithful."

To Post, the American bishops "have lost a tremendous amount of moral authority with their people and stature in society." That can only be overcome by restoring trust among parishioners, he contends, and "that's going to be earned back through participation, not authority, through sunlight, not secrecy."

Even lay conservatives who distrust Voice of the Faithful agree that church culture must change. Hudson says that bishops' "secretive style is one of the central causes of the problem," and that bishops should rely on the expertise of faithful parishioners in non-doctrinal matters.

Russell Shaw, a former spokesman for the U.S. bishops' conference, believes the events culminating in Law's departure "have produced a radical, permanent change in the way many American Catholics think of themselves in relation to the church and its leaders." The laity's demands for a greater role in the church won't recede, Shaw predicts, and if the church doesn't adjust, "it would be difficult to be very optimistic about the future."

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