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Staking Their Claim

With sex scandals rocking the Catholic Church, parishioners unite to fight for reforms.


WELLESLEY, Mass. — In an unadorned parish hall in this posh Boston suburb, a woman spoke evenly, clearly trying to control her emotions. "I'm concerned about my children, who are making decisions about the future for my grandchildren," Claire Megan said. "I want them all to remain Catholic. But not in the church the way it's been."

This faithful churchgoer has found herself rethinking her world these days as new accusations continue to surface about sex crimes and cover-ups within the Catholic priesthood. Not one to see herself as a reformer, let alone a revolutionary, she nevertheless now feels compelled to help change the institution that has always been her spiritual home. She is attending meetings, helping to draw up proposals, and talking. Mostly talking. For better or worse, the church is no longer a place people like Megan can take for granted on Sundays. And as the Catholic church's problems become more glaring, laypeople like this unassuming grandmother in her 60s are getting involved.

From Buffalo, N.Y., to Chicago to Southern California, laypeople around the United States are getting together to see what role they can take, many of them demanding a larger role in church governance, meeting in ad hoc groups designed to bring about a dramatic change in church policy. At the very least, these people want a voice, some want more, including a church government with equal partners between the clergy and the laity--much as the Senate and House work side by side. They want to help police church actions, and they are prepared to withhold their donations as leverage to bring about such change.

Some of the most ambitious of these advocates meet every Monday night in the parish hall of St. John the Evangelist Catholic church in this small suburb of Boston. Their group, of which Megan is a member, got its start when 25 parishioners met after a Sunday Mass to vent about the former Boston priest, John J. Geoghan, accused of molesting more than 130 boys, and Boston Cardinal Bernard Law's long-term willingness to keep the problems hidden. The meetings have evolved into strategy sessions with the gathering force of a social revolution.

The group's name, Voice of the Faithful, suggests that its members do not intend to break away from the religious tradition they love. Their slogan, taped to the wall of their meeting room, spells out their straightforward, albeit difficult, goal: "Keep the faith, change the church."

To be sure, grass-roots movements intent on reforming church policies have cropped up repeatedly since the mid-1960s, when the leaders of the Second Vatican Council called for greater participation by laypeople in the life of the church. But most of these reformist groups have focused on a single issue, from ordination for women to birth control or equality for homosexuals. Now, as sexual abuse charges against dozens of priests around the world are being made public, laypeople are saying it is past time to rethink how the church does business. "Pedophilia is only a symptom of a disease," says Jim Muller, a cardiologist and parishioner of St. John the Evangelist and president of Voice of the Faithful. "The disease is absolute power."

The possibility of changing a centuries-old governing system composed of an all-male conference of bishops is daunting. "We've got to stay focused," says Muller. "Our goal is to organize the laity and give us a voice. If we start fighting over the gay issue, married priests and everything else, we won't make it."

No one envisions this happening overnight. Earlier this month, at a workshop called "Reform in the Catholic Church" in Belmont, Mass., a few miles from Wellesley, Mary Jo Bane discussed more basic strategies for church reform. Bane is an expert on public policy issues and teaches at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Her session was part of a daylong conference on a variety of religious topics.

"It's a question of forming an alternative institution," she told 40 people who sat in a circle around her. "I'm your basic incrementalist. Change begins at the parish level."

In Chicago, Dan Daley is co-director of Call to Action, a group founded in the late-1970s that is the largest Catholic Church reform group in the U.S. It counts 25,000 members nationwide, including lay Catholics, nuns and priests and is monitoring lay-led movements such as the one in Wellesley. "Parishes around the country are holding meetings where people can talk, hear from the staff, sort out their feelings," says Daley. "Slowly they're becoming more conscious of the underlying issues. Particular parishes are going through the process, but each one is quite aware that others are doing the same thing. Call to Action is set up to connect these people. We're gearing up for it. We've started to get requests."

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