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US Catholic Priests' Group Urges Reform - 2003-09-23

It's been nearly two years since the sexual abuse scandal in the American Catholic Church first began, and one month since Father John Geoghan - the man whose conviction started it all - was murdered by a fellow inmate at a Massachusetts prison. By this point, calls for reform and accountability within the Church hierarchy have become commonplace. But until now, these calls have been coming primarily from the laity. That's changing, as VOA's Maura Farrelly reports.

They call themselves "Voice of the Ordained." They're a small but vocal group of 150 priests and 52 former priests from three dioceses in and around New York City.

"Really the organization came together so that there would be a voice for priests in looking at the whole situation with the Church at this time," explained founding member Monsignor John Powis, who has been working with low-income Catholics in New York's borough of Brooklyn since he became a priest in the early 1960s. "How a pope is named, how bishops are selected, how priests are selected, should there be a married clergy? All the questions that are going to come up and have to come up."

Father Powis said the Catholic laity aren't the only ones who've been feeling alienated from the Church hierarchy. He said many of the men who became parish priests in the 1960s, when the Catholic Church was undergoing some radical reforms known as Vatican II, are disappointed in the bishops and cardinals who are their supervisors. He said parish priests like himself feel the hierarchy has abandoned some of the key elements of Vatican Two by distancing itself and its parish priests from the laity.

"There were a lot of things going on after Vatican II which were exciting, said Father Powis. "For instance, I was part of something in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, and we were doing things that were unheard of, say, 15 or 20 years before Vatican II. We had groups of priests who were living in apartments, working very closely with the communities, particularly with very poor people. We had a bishop who many times said to me, "I don't understand what you're doing, but I'll always support you." Now that's not the type of bishop that's been named since this present pope is pope."

Monsignor Powis said the sexual abuse scandal and the cover-up that went on for years are symptomatic of a greater problem in the Catholic Church - namely, the refusal of bishops and cardinals to recognize that the world today is far more complex than it used to be.

"We're getting documents now coming from Rome that really… aren't that pertinent to the days in which we live," he said.

John Powis says the fact that 52 members of Voice of the Ordained are former priests is a classic example of how out of touch with the world the Church hierarchy has become. These men left the priesthood because they wanted to get married, and the Catholic Church requires its priests to be celibate.

Church officials say celibacy isn't about being "out of touch". It's about ensuring that priests have the freedom to devote themselves full-time to their parishes. Celibate clergymen, after all, won't be distracted by their own families. But if recent statistics are any indication, more than half the American men ordained as priests this year will end up leaving the priesthood before the 25th anniversary of their ordination, and many will do so because they want to have families. This has created a tremendous priest shortage in the United States and around the world. And so Voice of the Ordained is calling on bishops everywhere to consider opening the priesthood up to married men.

"When I became a priest" recalls Father Powis, "it was a different world. In our class, we ordained 41 people. Last year in Brooklyn and Queens, with 217 parishes, we ordained two men. I've tried all my years to interest young men, and many of them have said they'd like to be priests, except that they would finally get to be 17 or 18 [years old] and say that they want to form a family. And that's part of the culture and the way that we live these days. It's a part of television, it's a part of the media, it's a part of everything."

Voice of the Ordained isn't the only group of Catholic clergymen calling for a re-evaluation of celibacy. Last month, 160 priests in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, sent a letter to their bishop, blaming celibacy for the priest shortage afflicting their diocese. That letter was quickly condemned by the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy, a group of more than 600 conservative priests in the United States and Canada. Nevertheless, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a group of priests is working to gather 5,000 signatures, calling upon the Church to make clerical celibacy optional. And according to the National Federation of Priests Councils, Catholic clergy in Boston, Chicago, and Charleston, South Carolina, may soon be doing the same.