Group of Church Faithful Struggles to Add Its Voice

January 19, 2003

Last July, Maria Cleary returned to Boston, that fountainhead of American liberty where she once earned a master's degree in religious education. She knew not what she would find.

Cleary would be attending a Voice of the Faithful meeting with three others from North Jersey. Voice of the Faithful was a brand new group. It was formed in Boston in the wake of the sex scandal wracking the Roman Catholic Church, its three goals to support the survivors, priests of integrity, and structural change within the church.

"I had no idea," Cleary recalled Friday in a voice cracking with laryngitis. "No idea at all. I liked what Voice of the Faithful was saying, but I didn't know what to expect. I was just being led by the Spirit."

Cleary is 54 years old, married, a mother of four. She lives in Parsippany and is director of Hudson County Community College's department of faculty and staff development. She is a lifelong Catholic: "I mean an involved Catholic. I've done everything, played the guitar at Masses - remember folk Masses? - taught religious education since I was a teenager. I've been a lector, a Eucharistic minister, you name it, I've been it, except for those things they don't let me do."

Despite all her experience in the Catholic Church, it was as if she were stepping into an alien land when she walked into that Voice of the Faithful meeting in Boston last summer.

"What I found," she croaked, "well, these people were there for the same reason we came. ... I guess that means if you build it, they will come? These people were dedicated, devout, love-filled, faith-filled."

I can relate to Cleary's story. Wednesday night I attended a Voice of the Faithful meeting (North Jersey chapter, by the way; Cleary is one of the founders). It was in Whippany in the gym at Our Lady of Mercy School. This school is in the Paterson Diocese, which covers Passaic, Morris, and Sussex counties. Had it been in Bergen County, there would have been no such meeting, because the Newark Archdiocese has banned Voice of the Faithful.

It seemed an odd turnabout to me - banned in Newark, not Boston. Why? Were these people flame-breathing radicals?

Not that I could see. There were upwards of 200 in the gym, average age maybe 50, almost all white, seemingly there to listen and listen closely. The ones I heard speak, spoke plainly. Some were there who attend church in the Newark Archdiocese.

The first order of business was praying. A short while later the guest speaker, the Rev. John Bambrick, pastor of St. Thomas More Church in Manalapan, stood at the lectern and recounted, with evident pain and anger but without some of the details, how he had been sexually abused when he was 15 years old by a priest temporarily posted to his parish from New York.

Bambrick spoke of his attempts to get this priest moved: moved to any place and any position that would not allow him opportunity to do the same again. The hierarchy in the Archdiocese of New York gave Bambrick almost no support. Through his lawyer, he was offered a settlement, but money was not what he sought. Finally, by going public, Bambrick did get the priest removed from his position and was told that the priest's file was among those turned over to police.

Today Bambrick calls himself a survivor, refusing the description of victim he said is favored by bishops: "I'm a proud survivor."

Bambrick's story was of course spellbinding, but its message was not news. For a year now everyone in America has recognized that the Catholic priest sex scandal was both real and widespread, and that there was a coverup. Not a whisper, not a cough, not a shuffle of chairs could I hear from the audience as Bambrick spoke. He received a standing ovation at the end; it lasted a full minute.

The people broke into action groups. Cleary led the one on structural change. It is precisely this goal that has gotten Voice of the Faithful banned in Newark and other places: Bishops will not argue that survivors of predator priests should be supported nor that priests of integrity should be supported. It is evident they fear structural change.

Cleary said the structural goal is to give the Catholic laity "an effective voice in decision-making, in choosing bishops, in choosing members of review boards, in church finances. As it relates to operations, that is, and not with regard to doctrine and dogma."

The North Jersey chapter has asked for and received financial records from the Paterson Diocese; the bishop, Frank Rodimer, has not banned the group but has indicated he is evaluating it. Still, said Cleary, many priests in the Paterson Diocese are reluctant to lend their buildings for meetings, which is why the North Jersey chapter still does not have a site for its next meeting, Feb. 20.

Voice of the Faithful says its membership has surpassed 30,000.

"People are calling this one of the most historic moments for change in the Catholic Church," Cleary told me, her voice strengthening a tad. "Some say it is the most momentous development since the Protestant Reformation, but that cannot be compared because we are not breaking away. In fact we are getting more involved. We're here for the duration."

The group has posted not only its goals but also its methods, chief among them the openness with which it wants its church to operate. Sometimes such candor requires an answer of "I don't know."

Where is Voice of the Faithful leading, I asked Cleary.

"I don't know. I don't think any of us knows."

Rod Allee may be reached at The Record, One Garret Mountain Plaza, P.O. Box 471, West Paterson, N.J. 07424, or via e-mail at Please include your name and phone number.


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