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Conference Organizers Draw Ire of Conservative Catholics : Religion: Two are urged to quit after flap about speaker who backs abortion rights.

February 11, 1994|LARRY B. STAMMER and JOHN DART | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A simmering controversy erupted Thursday over the orthodoxy of speakers at a major Roman Catholic religious education congress in Anaheim next week, with demands from conservative Catholics for the resignations of a leading nun and the congress coordinator.

The demands followed an unusual public disclosure last week by Cardinal Roger M. Mahony that he had revoked an invitation to an abortion rights advocate who had been scheduled to speak.

Mahony's announcement and the resignation demands were the latest developments in a dispute over speakers at the nation's largest Catholic religious education congress. The meeting typically attracts more than 20,000 participants and is sponsored by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

A small group of Catholics in Camarillo called the California Coalition of Concerned Catholics charged that the Los Angeles Archdiocese Office of Religious Education, which planned the education congress, has been "in the hands of dissenters."

They called for the resignations of Sister Edith Prendergast as the archdiocesean director of religious education, and of conference coordinator Adrian Whitaker.

"We're demanding complete and immediate reform of the Religious Education Office," said Adria Laubacher of the coalition. "Sister Edith Prendergast and Adrian Whitaker must go."

Prendergast, director of the congress, and Whitaker declined to comment, but there was a sharp response from Father Gregory Coiro, the archdiocesan spokesman. Coiro said those calling for the resignations represent a very small but vocal minority of Catholics: "What they're doing by calling for the resignations of Sister Edith and Adrian Whitaker is just trying to impose their narrow-minded vision on others."

Nonetheless, Mahony announced in the Feb. 6 issue of Tidings, the archdiocesan newspaper, that he had revoked a speaking invitation to Daniel Maguire of Marquette University, a former priest and an abortion rights advocate.

"I will not abide the presence of any speaker at our congress who teaches anything contrary to the full teachings of our Catholic Church," the cardinal wrote.

Mahony's office said Thursday that he withdrew Maguire's invitation in early November, before the controversy became public.

Maguire was one of several speakers who drew howls of protest from the editor of a national Catholic weekly newspaper, the Wanderer, and a little-known Tustin-based group called Catholics United for the Splendor of Truth.

Wanderer Editor Al Matt wrote two months ago that it was "mind-boggling" that the congress would welcome "this rogues' gallery of heresiarchs, apostates, schismatics, dissenters and New Agers" in light of last year's papal encyclical "Veritatis Splendor," in which Pope John Paul II exhorted bishops to uphold orthodox Catholicism.

"The heat finally got to him," Matt said this week when told of the cardinal's announcement.

Maguire said in an interview that he has advocated abortion rights for years, "although only 3% of my published work concerns abortion." His scheduled workshops were on unrelated topics--"The Moral Code of Judaism and Christianity" and "The Primacy of Joy."

"If you don't hold the line on the key issue (of abortion)--what I call pelvic orthodoxy--then you are not allowed to talk about anything else," Maguire said.

Coiro said that the Marquette professor's links to abortion rights groups such as Planned Parenthood and Catholics for a Free Choice made him an unacceptable speaker, even if critics of the congress had not raised the issue.

Mahony, chairman of the Pro-Life Activities Committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, also dispatched letters to all other speakers insisting that their presentations be "in full harmony with the church's teachings." Mahony also telephoned another speaker, Father Michael Crosby of Milwaukee, seeking similar assurances.

An article in the Wanderer accused Crosby of comparing the Catholic hierarchy to the abusive parent in a dysfunctional family. Crosby wrote that the church is suffering the "disease of clerical and papal addiction," the newspaper said.

"I really respected him for calling me," Crosby said Thursday. "We had a good talk. He's getting a lot of flak."

Mahony said that he was putting safeguards in place to ensure that speakers at all future conferences "meet the highest standards of orthodoxy."

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