Parishioners support their closed churches during a procession on the Boston Common, Sunday, Aug. 15, 2004, in Boston. The turnout for the event, organized by Voice of the Faithful, demonstrated the lay church reform group's continuing power to mobilize Catholics. Two and a half years after Voice emerged from the wreckage of the clergy sex abuse scandal in the Boston Archdiocese, the church closings have given its members a new cause to rally behind.
AP Photo/Lisa Poole
NEWTON, Mass. (AP) Rain threatened, but Roman Catholics by the hundreds still converged on Boston Common for a Mass organized by a lay church reform group a service held partly to protest the closing of dozens of area parishes.
The mid-August turnout demonstrated Voice of the Faithful's continuing power to mobilize Catholics. Two and a half years after the group emerged from the wreckage of the clergy sex abuse scandal in the Boston Archdiocese, the church closings have given members a new rallying cry.
Still, the group's influence on the church it aims to change remains uncertain. Catholic leaders in Boston have shown little inclination to pay it heed, and some observers question how long the group can survive.
''I think they've been sort of reactive and opportunistic,'' capitalizing on crises, said Philip Lawler, editor of the Catholic World Report, a conservative monthly.
The archdiocese, meanwhile, has long questioned the group's motivations, citing its links to people who oppose church teachings on issues such as abortion and gay rights. A ban that keeps new chapters from meeting on church property has remained in place through three leaders of the archdiocese, despite repeated pleas by Voice leaders.
The Rev. Robert Carr, parochial vicar at Boston's Cathedral of the Holy Cross, said Voice seems obsessed with its own grievances rather than broader issues facing Catholics. ''I think they will peter out,'' he said.
But the Rev. Richard McBrien, a liberal University of Notre Dame theologian, said ''that's wishful thinking'' because ''the issue on which they were ultimately founded is going to continue for a long time,'' namely giving the laity a key role in the church's future.
Voice's originator was James Muller, a Harvard Medical School cardiologist and co-founder of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which won the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize.
Muller and other Boston area Catholics organized Voice amid grief and anger over the abuse crisis that began in January 2002 with revelations that priests accused of molestation were repeatedly allowed by church leaders to keep working.
The archdiocese's leader at the time, Cardinal Bernard Law, delayed meeting with the group for months, then declined to accept a donation from it an icy tone that has persisted even though Law resigned in December 2002.
As the abuse scandal spread to other dioceses, Voice expanded to about 200 national and international affiliates, though the Boston area remains home to 44 chapters and half the membership.
Voice claims about 30,000 supporters, but the number of active members is likely far lower. The total is tabulated from people who expressed agreement with the group's goals through e-mails or other media.
The group employs a skeleton staff of three led by executive director Steve Krueger, a former investment banker who is paid only $48,000.
Annual reports show Voice received $585,982 in contributions for fiscal 2003 and $599,633 in 2004, steady support despite a significant drop in media coverage of clergy sex abuse following last year's $85 million settlement with victims in Boston.
Boston-area supporters have been re-energized by anger over the scheduled closure of 82 parishes in a major restructuring forced by declining attendance and financial woes. The abuse scandal has played a part in both of those problems.
Parishioners complain that they had little say in the process, and accuse the archdiocese of stalling appeals just the kind of complaints about a marginalized laity that Voice was created to address. The group's three stated goals are to support abuse victims, support priests of integrity and shape structural change in the church.
But its slogan ''keep the faith, change the church'' has raised concerns among Catholic leaders, said the Rev. Christopher Coyne, spokesman for the Boston Archdiocese.
From its beginning, Coyne said, the group has associated with people who want to ''change the church'' by altering its well-established positions on controversial issues. For instance, Debra Haffner, a well-known abortion-rights activist, spoke at Voice's first convention.
Coyne also noted a May incident in which Voice of the Faithful president Jim Post publicly scolded Archbishop Sean O'Malley for what he called a ''divisive'' stand against gay marriage. O'Malley was simply articulating the church's belief that marriage is between one man and one woman, Coyne said.
''It doesn't quite jibe with them saying, 'We believe what the church believes,''' Coyne said.
Krueger rejects such criticisms. He says Voice has unequivocally stated that it accepts church teachings. ''The running joke around here is, 'If you find the hidden agenda, would you let us know where it is?''' he said.
Krueger said the group's association with people of differing views is in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, the 1962-65 meeting of all world bishops that modernized aspects of Catholicism and envisioned respectful dialogue among opposing viewpoints.
''It doesn't say you'll only talk to Catholics who pass some sort of litmus test,'' Krueger said. ''At some point, the bishops will realize that (the members of) Voice of the Faithful are the best friends that they have.''
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