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Catholics Seek a Voice in Church's Response to Scandals

Meeting: Lay members gather to demand greater openness from leaders and more decision-making power.

July 20, 2002|CAROL EISENBERG | NEWSDAY

Carol Bongiorno and her husband, Joseph, had planned a Vermont vacation this month. But the retired couple from Williston Park, N.Y., recently postponed those plans to join thousands of Roman Catholics who are gathering in Boston today to take back their church.

"I'm very disappointed in how the hierarchy has handled this pedophilia scandal," said Carol Bongiorno, 65, a devout Catholic who sent her four children to Catholic grade schools and who has helped lead a parish prayer group for 25 years. "I don't want to leave the church. But now that I know what I know, I have to take responsibility and do something about it."

Though some Catholics have looked to Rome and to the recent bishops meeting in Dallas for a panacea to the scandals bedeviling the church, more than 4,000 of the faithful are headed to a daylong meeting in the Hynes Convention Center in Boston to chart their own path by claiming a voice in the church they love.

They are mainstream Catholics for the most part, many of whom like the Bongiornos are pillars of their parishes. And now, as part of a fledgling but fast-growing group, Voice of the Faithful, they are coming together to demand greater openness and accountability from church leaders, as well as a greater decision-making role for the laity.

"This is very significant because this is a moderate group at this point, trying to work with the institutional church, but also demanding accountability and collaboration," said R. Scott Appleby, director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame. "The people who are participating are very respectable, very mainstream. These are not extremists or radicals or people pushing a special cause. They're concerned about the general lack of accountability of the leadership, and they're calling their church to higher standards."

Established just five months ago in a church basement in a suburb of Boston, Voice of the Faithful has caught on across the country in a climate of disenchantment and distrust among the laity. The group, whose motto is "Keep the faith, change the church," now claims 19,000 members in 40 states and 21 countries. With mostly word-of-mouth promotion, organizers say that they expect a sold-out crowd for all 5,000 spots in the Hynes Convention Center, at $20 per ticket.

Today's meeting will be a critical moment for the group. Though Pope John Paul II spoke about sex abuse in his meeting with the American cardinals in Rome, and the bishops had their say in Dallas, "this is the laity's turn," said Jim Post, newly elected president of Voice of the Faithful and a professor of management at Boston University. "This is the first opportunity for us to speak in a national forum since this great scandal broke six months ago."

For the first time, too, Catholics of divergent backgrounds -- many of whom signed onto Voice of the Faithful via its Internet site (www.votf.org)--will come together to discuss how to build a national framework for the group, as well as developing strategies for change. At the top of that list is expected to be an alternative fund-raising mechanism that would enable Catholics to support Catholic charities while bypassing bishops' appeals.

But the group's challenges are formidable, from maintaining momentum as the media drumbeat diminishes, to unifying a diverse membership, to translating the rhetoric of change into reality in a hierarchical and cleric-driven church.

"It's one thing to say, 'I love the faith, and I'm angry at the church,' "said David O'Brien, director of the Center for Religion, Ethics and Culture at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., who will speak today. "It's another thing to make a sustained effort over a long period of time to bring about change."

Many of those going to Boston say they are ready to roll up their sleeves and do just that.

"There's a feeling among many cradle Catholics that we're sort of childlike in our faith," said Melissa Gradel of New York City, 36, a mother of two who has served on her parish council at St. Boniface Church and who is one of 10 people from the parish going to the meeting in Boston.

"We let the priests take care of us, and we listen to what they tell us.... I think that part of the message of the mess we're in now is that we have to grow up in our faith and act like adults."

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