Priests forum struggles to define itself in the wake of scandal

Posted: Friday, February 06, 2004

BOSTON (AP) It began as a way for Roman Catholic priests to support each other in what is a tough vocation at the best of times.

But the Boston Priests' Forum jumped to prominence when the clergy sex abuse scandal exploded in the nation's fourth-largest Roman Catholic archdiocese two years ago. The group's public concern about the way Cardinal Bernard Law handled molestation claims added to the pressure on Law to resign as archbishop which he did in December 2002.

Yet now that Law has been gone for more than a year and the crisis has eased somewhat, the priests' forum finds itself struggling to remain a functioning group and to determine just exactly what it's supposed to do, organizers say.

The group is caught between returning to its roots as a fraternal organization or developing the public voice it found during the height of the crisis, said the Rev. Robert Bullock, the forum's president.

The forum might best serve priests as an independent voice, but that could also cause discord within the clergy, said the Rev. Thomas Mahoney, the group's treasurer.

''That's why this is a difficult crossroads to come to,'' he said.

The forum was founded in 2001 by three priests who began meeting over dinner to discuss theology and chronic problems of the priesthood, such as isolation and overwork.

When the abuse scandal broke in January 2002, group leaders took on a public role expressing concerns about Law, but also saying church leaders were unresponsive when it came to addressing false accusations and plummeting morale in the clergy.

Law did not embrace the forum, waiting two months to meet with leaders after they asked him for an urgent meeting. Its growth without Law's backing was extraordinary, given the priests' oath of obedience.

The forum grew to about 250 of the 550 active priests in the archdiocese. Still, Mahoney said it never truly became a unified voice for clerics.

Once Law stepped down in December 2002 the crisis began to cool, along with the motivation of some forum members, said the Rev. Walter Woods, one of its directors. Membership has dipped to about 200 priests.

''The momentum is there, but it's not what it was a year-and-a-half ago,'' Woods said. ''We've come up against limits limits of time and limits of energy.''

In an effort to become better organized, the forum has drafted a mission statement with Mary Jo Bane, a public policy expert from Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government and a Catholic lay leader who was among the first to call for Law to resign as archbishop. A final mission statement should be approved this month, Bullock said.

One priest who is no longer active in the forum said some of his colleagues, particularly younger priests, have been turned off by a perception that the group is dominated by liberals.

''I don't even consider myself that conservative, but, boy, did I feel like it,'' said the priest, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

A priest still active in the forum, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said the group far from being too radical suffers a lack of vigor.

''It's not doing much of anything,'' he said. ''It's not a voice, it's a whisper.''

Meanwhile, Law's successor, Archbishop Sean O'Malley, has proposed changes to an elected body of priests within the archdiocese, called the Presbyteral Council, that his spokesman said may lessen the need for the forum. The Rev. Christopher Coyne said the new council will give priests the kind of voice in the archdiocese they've been seeking through the forum.

''Over time, as the Presbyteral Council becomes reinvigorated and reconstituted, much of what the priests' forum seeks to bring about becomes redundant,'' Coyne said.

Bullock said O'Malley's changes to the council won't make the forum unnecessary because the council is an advisory body to the archbishop, while the forum is an ''independent and distinctive'' support group for priests.

Bullock and other forum leaders met recently with O'Malley in what Bullock called a ''positive'' session. Forum leaders emphasized the group was not confrontational, but would act to preserve priests' rights and boost morale.

Bullock's pledge came as a new set of issues are emerging for Boston priests.

For instance, O'Malley strongly opposes gay marriage, though other Catholics are less certain. Church closings and parish consolidations O'Malley is planning to announce are sure to anger parishioners and add turmoil to priests' lives.

With all that's happening, Mahoney said, priests have an acute need for the forum as it was perceived during the crisis: ''There's a need for support and strength among a very fractured and powerless group, which is the priests of this archdiocese.''

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