Clergy and laity search for answers to crisis amid bitterness, distrust


Meltdown in Boston
National Catholic Reporter, June 20, 2003

Eighteen months after the clergy sex abuse crisis erupted in Boston, and a year after the U.S. bishops took steps to assure Catholics that predator priests would no longer serve in “active ministry,” efforts to move beyond the crisis in this troubled archdiocese are stalled. And even with the hope generated by a new archbishop (and reports indicate that such an appointment is imminent) most signs point to a situation that will likely get worse before, or if, it gets better.

Meanwhile, a caretaker “apostolic administrator” leads a demoralized and divided clergy, who, in turn, preside over parishes where many members hold their local hierarchy in bitter contempt.

Self-described orthodox Catholics express horror at the abuses committed by their clergy, and say the crisis is one of faith, a failure among clergy and laity alike to fully embrace church teaching. Their more liberal counterparts, meanwhile, call for administrative transparency and reform of unaccountable clerical structures they blame for a host of ills, not least of which was the placement of child-molesting priests in parish environments.

Signs of distress

Some indicators of the disaffection and distrust in the Boston archdiocese:

Fewer than 15 percent of Boston’s 2.1 million Catholics attend Sunday Mass, a double-digit drop over last year, according to church officials quoted in The Pilot, the archdiocesan newspaper. (Nationally, approximately 40 percent of U.S. Catholics attend Sunday Mass.)

The 2002 “Cardinal’s Appeal” raised just $8.65 million of its $17.4 million goal.

Parish donations are down an average of 7 percent.

The “Promise for Tomorrow” capital campaign is $100 million short of its $300 million objective.

Nearly 40 percent of the 400 Catholics (and 30 percent of self-identified weekly churchgoers) recently polled by The Boston Globe say they would support, “as a future step,” splitting the American church from Rome. This call for schism is born less of conviction than frustration, some say.

Meanwhile, lawyers for the church and victims of clergy sexual abuse work behind closed doors to reach a “universal settlement” of more than 500 sexual abuse claims against the church. On May 22, Bishop Richard Lennon, the archdiocese’s apostolic administrator since Cardinal Bernard Law’s December 2002 resignation, called for an additional 30 days to settle the cases. The extra time, said Lennon, “will assist the archdiocese as it continues to work with insurance carriers in the effort to effectuate a settlement of these claims.” If the settlement is ever agreed to (and a resolution of the cases is Lennon’s No. 1 task as apostolic administrator), it will likely cost the archdiocese and its insurers more than $100 million.

Tired of crisis

Moreover, Boston Catholics are tired; crisis fatigue is widespread. They are worn out by hundreds of meetings, endless conversations, countless headlines, and, not least, the need to choose sides in the unceasing rat-a-tat-tat of controversies and unanswered questions. Among them:

How aggressively should the archdiocese defend itself against government prosecutors and sexual abuse victims seeking damages? Critics charge the archdiocese with employing heavy-handed legal tactics against abuse victims and government investigators.

Should there be retribution against the 58 priests who publicly called for Law’s resignation? And what of those pastors and priests who now feel free to publicly opine on all manner of issues? (Several Boston priests, for example, recently spoke out against a Massachusetts Catholic Conference legislative effort to ban “civil unions” and define marriage as an institution between a man and a woman.)

What should be the fate of Law’s auxiliary bishops — several now heading different dioceses — who were responsible for the day-to-day personnel decisions that resulted in the placement of abusing priests in parishes?

Should organizations such as Voice of the Faithful have access to church property?

Should the archdiocese (or its affiliates) accept contributions for its charitable works from Voice of the Faithful?

Should the archbishop’s palatial residence be sold?

Should the church reveal both the human and financial cost of the crisis? Should it establish procedures so that contributors know what becomes of the money they donate?

How should the church relate to victims of clergy sexual abuse?

And so on and on.

Boston Catholics are frustrated, angry, fractured. What they are not, it seems, is hopeful.

Fr. Robert Carr, parochial vicar at Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross, senses a wait-and-see attitude in anticipation of the naming of a new archbishop. “We’re all in that mode now,” said Carr, who publicly opposed calls for Law’s resignation.

“I think right now there is a real malaise over the whole diocese, almost a depression,” said Fr. Walter Cuenin, pastor of 10,000-member Our Lady Help of Christians parish in Newton. “No one sees a way out,” said Cuenin, a leader of the Boston Priests Forum, a thorn in the chancery’s side (toward the end of his tenure Law banned archdiocesan groups from meeting at Cuenin’s parish), and a prime mover behind the December 2002 letter signed by 58 priests calling for Law to resign.

To improve communication

Among those seeking a “way out” is David Zizik, a mild mannered insurance attorney, father of two sons, and vice chair of the parish pastoral council at Sherborn’s St. Theresa Parish. In April 2002, four months into the crisis, Zizik sent an e-mail to 35 Boston Catholics — neighboring parish council leaders, theologians, local priests — urging the creation of an “Association of Parish Pastoral Councils.” The idea, says Zizik, was to improve communication among pastors, the laity and the chancery, and to promote “best practices” in parish life.

Wrote Zizik: “How — consistent with our shared Catholic faith and tradition — can we improve relationships between and among laity, parish priests and archdiocesan leaders so that policies and decisions that affect parishes are made openly, with all concerned voices heard, based upon full disclosure of relevant information, so that we can become a healthier church, more responsive to the needs of all Catholics, more open to and inclusive of the views and opinions of all church members?”

Despite his Boston College theology degree, Zizik didn’t appreciate how threatening his seemingly benign proposal would appear to embattled chancery officials. Five days after his e-mail, Auxiliary Bishop Walter Edyvean instructed Boston priests “not to join, foster or promote this endeavor among your parish pastoral council members or the community of the faithful at large” as it conflicted with existing structures designed to promote lay input.

Zizik would go on to meet with Edyvean and Lennon (prior to the latter being named apostolic administrator), and make some adjustments to his initial proposal. For example, the group is now the Parish Leadership Forum, not “association,” because the word “association” has specific connotations in canon law.

Today, says Zizik, the group has a cooperative relationship with chancery officials and parish pastors. Eighteen of the archdiocese’s 52 Western Region parish council leaders participated in the group’s first endeavor, a half-day session that included break-out sessions on four questions: What can parish leaders do to encourage greater participation by adult Catholics in the life of the church? What can parish leaders do to encourage our children to become actively involved in parish life? What can parish leaders do to promote social justice in our communities? What can parish leaders do to ease the financial crisis facing many parishes?

The chancery’s initial hostility to Zizik’s proposal is, perhaps, emblematic of the bigger trend: There’s great distrust between the church’s traditional hierarchical leadership and lay activists provoked by the crisis. “We are at loggerheads because many groups within the church have adopted a kind of adversarial [approach] that’s really based on a kind of civil jurisprudential model that says if we have two sides, and each has good advocacy and … presents [it] to a neutral panel, that’s how you get the truth out.” Such a mindset, says Zizik, is appropriate for a justice system, not a Catholic faith community.

Some want confrontation

Still, there are those who say confronting the institution is vital.

“Part of the reason people are so frustrated is that the structures by which people would have a voice, by which people could come together, by which people could make change, don’t exist in the Catholic church,” says Mary Jo Bane, professor of public policy and management at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Bane, a member of the Parish Leadership Forum’s planning committee, is no stranger to controversy. In 1996 she resigned as Assistant Secretary for Children in Families at the Department of Health and Human Services rather than condone President Bill Clinton’s support for that year’s welfare reform initiative, which she considered punitive toward the poor.

Early in the current crisis, writing in The Boston Globe, she urged Catholics to withhold “contributions to the archdiocese until the church becomes more open and participatory.” That approach, admitted Bane, has been unsuccessful. “The hierarchy doesn’t seem to care very much about Mass attendance, as best I can tell, or about whether people are not contributing.” Bane said the hierarchy does not seem to understand “the magnitude of the disaster” they are presiding over.

“Power corrupts and institutions that are not accountable tend to protect the people in power and that’s what’s going on,” says Bane.

Is the Boston crisis ultimately about power? Voice of the Faithful president Jim Post thinks so. “We see power all over this,” said Post, a Boston University management professor.

“There is the abuse of power of an adult raping or violating a child,” said Post.

“And then you have this institutional abuse of power. Some of these bishops — here in Boston it was most evident — who knowingly concealed, knowingly deceived, knowingly put predators in places where if they thought about it, they knew this person would engage in recidivist behavior. There was no doubt about that. Why did they do that? Because [they had] the power to.”

Voice of the Faithful — which now claims tens of thousands of members nationally — emerged from a January 2002 meeting of 25 parishioners of St. John the Evangelist Church in the wealthy suburb (average home price is nearly $1 million) of Wellesley. The group was soon mired in controversy — denied access to most parishes by Cardinal Law and challenged by conservatives who say the group is using the crisis to pursue a dissident agenda.

Members of the organization and certainly its leaders are accustomed to wielding power — in academia, law, government, business. The group pushes process over substance — taking no formal positions on doctrinal issues, pledging its desire to work within canon law even as it pushes church leaders to manage the church more transparently. More than 4,000 attended the group’s July 2002 national conference; approximately 300 local members drafted a “blueprint for change” at a June 7 meeting in Newton.

Teach the teachings

By contrast, Carol McKinley said the problems facing Boston are less about power than fidelity. “We really can’t prevent new wounds until we get to the point of teaching the teachings of the church,” said McKinley, founder of Faithful Voice, a group formed to “expose the underpinnings of Voice of the Faithful.” Smaller in number if not enthusiasm than the group they oppose, the Faithful Voice operates a take-no-prisoners Web site (“Lucifer, The First Liberal” is among the posted articles). Faithful Voice pledges fidelity to the magisterium. Catholics who question church teaching should sit in the pews and pray for conversion, but not occupy leadership positions, said McKinley.

Voice of the Faithful members were among the protesters who gathered each Sunday at the height of the crisis in the predominantly Hispanic community that is home to the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. Parochial vicar Carr recalled an occasion on the sidewalk outside the cathedral, a block from a 250-unit public housing development, when a television reporter approached a protester.

“I’m concerned that my children in Wellesley are not safe,” the protester told the reporter, according to Carr.

Carr’s reaction: “You’ve got to be kidding me. Your children in Wellesley are safe — but when are you going to care about the kids we have around here?” Residents of Wellesley, said the class-conscious Carr, “could give a damn about the people here.”

Carr’s criticism seems over the top and, perhaps, not to be taken literally. He’s got his own frustrations, foremost among them trying to serve the people of a parish put in a spotlight they didn’t expect and don’t like, even as he remains loyal to a leadership that commands little respect in the broader community. The economic and social divisions that provoke the 45-year-old priest are real enough, though they represent just a small portion of the many fractures facing Boston.

The archdiocese has made progress, for example, in dealing with abuse victims, though the public is less sympathetic to survivors than it was when the crisis erupted, said Ann Webb, regional co-coordinator for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, SNAP. The public, said Webb, “thinks we’re making a [financial] killing” as a result of settlements with the church. Meanwhile, archdiocesan procedures for dealing with abuse victims who approach the church for assistance, while not perfect, have improved, said Webb.

Meanwhile, on a good many issues, the church’s hands appear tied. Though Lennon has the authority to do what needs to be done, said Fr. Christopher Coyne, as a practical matter he would not want to take action on significant items — parish closings for example — that would tie the hands of his successor.

Rebellious clergy

In addition, said Coyne, a seminary professor turned archdiocesan communications director, the next archbishop must deal with the rebellious clergy.

It’s not necessarily about the abuse crisis, and it has nothing to do with the men who signed the petition asking for the cardinal’s resignation.”

Rather, said Coyne, it’s about priests “who have over the past 18 months stood up in the pulpit, or in letters, and put forward opinions or statements that are contrary to church teaching. Obviously, it’s confusing for some of our lay folk. That’s something that needs to be attended to by the next archbishop.”

At some point, without losing sight of its commitment to survivors, most in the Boston church seem to agree that the period of intense introspection related to church administration has to give way, replaced by a recommitment to the reasons for the institution’s existence. Getting there is the hard part.

“We have to get back to following Christ, which ultimately is what the church is about,” said Carr.

“We shouldn’t have to live with a model of the institution of the church that reflects the medieval and early modern kingship models, just like we don’t want to live with a model of the church that says that everything is up for a vote,” said Bane.

“I think what we ought to be about is about mission … about bringing the good news to the poor, bringing release to the captive, opening the eyes of the blind, and making disciples of all nations by being the kind of community engaged in living the kind of life and doing the kind of work that Jesus did when he was with us in the flesh.”

At the chancery, meanwhile, Coyne poses the question in more colloquial terms. “How do we all get on the same team?” he asked.

Good question, that.

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent.


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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday June 23, 2003.
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