Voice of the Faithful, the Roman Catholic lay group that was formed in response to the sex abuse scandal that hit the headlines almost a year ago, has flourished, like the church itself once did, through adversity.
Banned, and in some cases vilified by the church hierarchy, the group has insisted that it does not want to change church teaching, but, rather, wants to reform the “human mechanism” that governs the church.
Specifically, the group’s representatives say, they want transparent finances and more influence over the selection of priests.
Finances and selection of personnel go right to the heart of the church’s sexual abuse scandal: for years, abusive priests have been moved around parishes rather than censured, and church money has been used to pay off accusers in return for their silence.
The fact that the group has been met by such suspicion by the hierarchy, a Boston spokesperson said, is evidence not of the group’s ulterior aims, but of its desire to bring about reform of the church against the wishes of an essentially corrupt hierarchy.
“We are very upset about the fact that priests have abused kids,” said Long Island representative Gene Zirkel, “and we are more upset that the hierarchy is more concerned with covering this up than protesting the abuse.
“They have said that we have a secret agenda, that we want women priests, that we want all sorts of untruths.”
Church officials, few of whom will speak on the record, have accused the organization of promoting the ordination of women, of supporting abortion and of opposing the vow of celibacy.
Slowly but surely, the group’s representatives say, the church hierarchy will have to address its concerns.
A significant step came in Boston in late November, when Cardinal Bernard Law finally agreed to meet the group. But the meeting’s impact was quickly overtaken by more revelations about the Boston area church scandal.
The president of Voice of the Faithful, Jim Post, said that at the meeting Law focused almost exclusively on asking whether the group saw itself as outside of the church’s authority.
“I think we made progress on the relationship side, since we had none and anything was a step forward,” Post said.
Last week, however, came a further crippling blow: revelations in Boston continued to come out about the scale of Law’s attempts to cover up years of sexual abuse in the archdiocese.
Hundreds of court documents showed that as recently as 1999, long after Law claimed to have gotten tough with pedophile priests, he had been in close personal contact with some of the accused priests, offering personal and sympathetic support and even compliments.
Post, writing to Voice of the Faithful members on the organization’s website, called it “a sickening turn for the worse.” Asked if Voice of the Faithful could ever engage constructively with the Boston hierarchy, spokesperson Mike Emerton said he really could not say.
The rise of Voice of the Faithful, with active groups in more than 40 U.S. states, and a membership said to be over 25,000, is a measure of the concern and distress that the church scandal has caused among the laity. But it is also a measure of how parishioners are no longer willing to be talked down to by the hierarchy.
Emerton, a spokesperson for the Boston area Voice of the Faithful, said that today’s laity had been so well educated by the church as children that they were now capable of taking on the hierarchy and winning all the arguments. The group’s arguments are persuasively simple.
Said Zirkel: “Ninety-nine percent of priests are good priests. We want to support good priests. But the structures have to change. As one mother put it [to me], if parents had been on the boards choosing priests, pedophiles would never have been appointed.”
But so far, the group’s spokespersons admit that they have had little affect on the hierarchy, and many of its members speak in generalities about reform of the church, talking of healing, or maximizing the talents of the laity. It is not clear how they will eventually get the hierarchy to listen to them.
However, they do have a significant weapon at their disposal: money.
Many Voice of the Faithful members say that because the laity constitutes the largest group of the church and the group that contributes the most money that allows dioceses to run churches, schools and charitable works.
“Many people have stopped giving to parishes,” Zirkel said. “To run hospitals, schools, churches, to help the poor, you need money. We are ushers, eucharistic ministers, lectors, Sunday school teachers.”
In Boston, said a Voice of the Faithful spokesperson, a priest had asked Cardinal Law, “How can you continue to ask parishioners for money if you are talking about declaring bankruptcy?”
Law recently received church permission to file for Chapter 11 status after he said the hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation could make the archdiocese, valued at $1.4 billion, bankrupt.
This withholding has already started to impact on a second group: priests themselves.
In response to Voice of the Faithful, concerned priests gathered at Rosie O’Grady’s in Manhattan in September and formed Voice of the Ordained. Voice of the Ordained numbers about 140 current and former priests from the Dioceses of Brooklyn and Rockville Center and the Archdiocese of New York.
Zirkel said that many other priests in the Rockville Center Diocese supported Voice of the Faithful. The hierarchy, he said, remains implacable.
“We are banned by Bishop William Murphy in church properties, so we meet in schools, veterans’ halls and libraries,” he said. “William Murphy, a good Irish name. What a shame.”
Call for resignation
In most recent developments among the priesthood, 58 Boston area priests signed a three-paragraph letter on Tuesday praising Law for his many positive contributions to Boston, but called for his resignation, declaring that “your position as our bishop is so compromised that it is no longer possible for you to exercise the spiritual leadership required for the church of Boston.”
The letter continues: “The people of this archdiocese are angry, hurt, and in need of authentic spiritual leadership. We believe that despite your good work in the past, you are no longer able to provide that leadership. . . . The priests and people of Boston have lost confidence in you as their spiritual leader.”
In New York, the experience of Voice of the Faithful has been somewhat different to other parts of the country.
David Pais, who represents the group in the city, said, “We have been fortunate. Cardinal Egan has not spoken about us or to us. We hope that his silence implies his consent.” The diocesan spokesperson was not available for comment at press time.
Pais said that if Egan did agree to meet the local group, he would find what “committed Catholics we are.” Zirkel spoke of a neighbor and parishioner who, when asked would be consider leaving the church, emotionally said: “I don’t know how not to be a Catholic.”
But there is evidence that the scandals and the hierarchy’s response have turned many Catholics away from attending Mass: many Voice of the Faithful members have reported parishioners staying at home.
Pais said that while Voice of the Faithful had attracted growing support, he too is concerned that many other parishioners are no longer going to Mass. Reform is urgent and paramount, he said, adding, “St. Teresa said, ‘We must be Christ’s hands in the world.’ We want to encourage more than just pray, pay and obey Catholics.”