Accessibility links

US Catholic Laity Group Seeks Change in Wake of Pedophile Scandal - 2003-07-23

On July 30, the Archdiocese of Boston will begin a new chapter in the sexual abuse crisis plaguing the American Roman Catholic Church. Bishop Sean O'Malley will be installed as the ninth Archbishop of Boston, replacing Bernard Cardinal Law, who resigned last December, after it was revealed he had hidden the sexual abuse in his archdiocese from the laity. Boston has been the epicenter of the crisis, which is about much more than just pedophile priests. Thousands of American Catholics are pointing to the actions of Bernard Law, and other clerical leaders like him… as a sign that laypeople need to have an active role in church government. These Catholics are part of a growing movement known as Voice of the Faithful, which began in Boston last year.

Steve Krueger loves his church and says that love was his primary motivation for getting involved with Voice of the Faithful. Group members insist they aren't asking for anything more that what church leaders themselves called for at the Second Vatican Council in 1965. Among the many resolutions adopted at that council was one calling for the laity to be given a more active role in the temporal affairs of the church, matters that can include financial decisions, the hiring of priests, and even certain aspects of worship. Mr. Krueger says in spite of Vatican Two, lay Catholics haven't had much of a role in the church, at least not in America. But Mr. Krueger points to the 180 chapters of Voice of the Faithful that have sprung up across the country as a sign that things are changing because, he says, they have to.

"Conversations have changed," said Mr. Krueger. "The focus of our Catholic schools and theologians over the last twelve to eighteen months has changed. Our parish Voice affiliates throughout the United States have met with over twelve bishops, to address issues related to this crisis, as well as broader issues of concern."

The fact that mere conversations about lay participation in the Church are taking place may not seem like much of a step. But Mr. Krueger points out that the Roman Catholic Church is a 2,000-year-old, exceedingly hierarchical institution that doesn't change quickly. Therefore it is a big deal that in such a short period of time, some American bishops have come to believe they must consult the laity, if the church is to get through this crisis. Mr. Krueger says at its core, the crisis is about trust. The laity no longer trust their clerical leaders.

"The trust needs to be restored," he emphasized. "And so we find ourselves in a position where we have to reach out to the bishops and create an understanding on their part that today their job is not just to try to regain our trust, but to learn how to trust us, the laity, for the first time."

And Mr. Krueger says that process can begin with Boston's Archdiocesan Pastoral Council, which is made up primarily of bishops and parish priests and a few laypeople who are appointed by the Archbishop and, according to Mr. Krueger, are not necessarily representative of the entire lay population. Mr. Krueger says in the past, lay representatives on the pastoral council have almost always subscribed to an older model of church government, which stresses the obligation of the laity to pay, pray, and obey. But that could change when Bishop Sean O'Malley takes over. The Franciscan Friar has a reputation for humility and for not being afraid to confront the wall of secrecy surrounding the church hierarchy. He's already worked with victims of clerical abuse in Fall River, Massachusetts, and Palm Beach, Florida. But in Boston, Bishop O'Malley will be walking into an archdiocese that has nearly 500 lawsuits pending against it, all of the result of sexual abuse by priests.

"The crisis here in the Boston archdiocese is so grave that it really goes beyond the capabilities and experience of any one person," he said. "The problems here need to be addressed by the whole Catholic community. He needs to bring laity together with clergy, and with victims and survivors, so that it begins to develop a partnership."

Mr. Krueger says without that partnership, the Catholic church in America may not survive this crisis. Without the laity, he points out, there is no church, and lay Catholics were already turning away from their church long before the sexual abuse became public.

"The greatest segment of Catholics are those people who describe themselves as lapsed Catholics," explained Mr. Krueger. "Regular attendance at mass is down dramatically. Throughout the country, it varies between about twenty and thirty percent. The mission of the church is to involve people in the life of the church. And that can't happen if people aren't going to church on a regular basis."

Voice of the Faithful members in Boston sent Bishop O'Malley a welcoming letter shortly after his appointment was announced earlier this month. Although the bishop has not responded to that letter, Mr. Krueger says he and his fellow Catholics are hopeful they will hear from Boston's new archbishop once he's installed.