Lennon to Launch 'Healing' Initiative
Prayers, Meetings to Start with Lent

By Michael Paulson
Boston Globe
February 25, 2003

Bishop Richard G. Lennon, after spending weeks focusing on the massive litigation confronting the Archdiocese of Boston, is launching his first major spiritual initiative -- an effort during Lent to heal a Catholic Church deeply wounded by the scandal of clergy sexual abuse.

Lennon, who has been serving as administrator of the Archdiocese of Boston since the Dec. 13 resignation of Cardinal Bernard F. Law, plans to rely in this effort on the church's fundamental tool: prayer. He plans to address the crisis at Mass on two of the most solemn days of the Christian calendar, Ash Wednesday and Holy Thursday. And he plans to ask priests to recommit themselves at the annual Chrism Mass during Holy Week to prevent abuse.

Lennon also plans, during the 40-day season of Lent that begins March 5, to hold his first five meetings with the priests of the archdiocese, and to hold five evening prayer sessions with Catholics throughout Eastern Massachusetts, at which priests will be asked to sit in the pews and not wear liturgical vestments so they can confess sins alongside the laity.

"The disclosures of clergy abuse of children, the inadequate manner in which we responded to the allegations administratively, the alienation of victims, their families, and others from their faith and from the Church, and the divisions that have arisen within the Church . . . point to the need for reconciliation and conversion," Lennon wrote in a letter being delivered to priests today.

The Catholic Church, locally and nationally, has attempted several times to use prayer and confession to respond to the sex abuse crisis, which exploded in January 2002. Numerous churches have held healing services or recited prayers for victims of abuse, Law asked people to join in a novena of prayers during Pentecost last year, and the bishops of the United States all agreed to fast as an act of penance last August.

But Lennon's effort, timed to coincide with the penitential season of Lent, is the broadest yet in the Archdiocese of Boston, and the first since the departure of Law, who had become a lightning rod for criticism. Lent also could be a relatively quiet time on the legal front, because most of the lawyers involved in the sex abuse issue have agreed to a 90-day pause in legal maneuvering as they attempt to negotiate a settlement. And next Monday, two days before the start of Lent, Lennon plans to announce the details of the new archdiocesan policy for responding to allegations of clergy sexual abuse, which has been sought by victims and victim advocates. The policy is mandated by rules adopted by American bishops and approved by the Vatican.

Lennon's Lenten plan is to be delivered by mail to priests today and published in church bulletins on Sunday. But several people interviewed about the plan yesterday offered mixed reactions.

"We often hear about this crisis in the legal context, and it's important that we not forget the spiritual," said the Rev. Matthew L. Lamb, a professor of theology at Boston College, who praised the initiative. "The church has to find her own spiritual voice in this, not in the sense of any kind of public relations ploy, but really for the sake of those who have suffered abuse and injustice. Spiritually, it's very important that this time of Lent be one of repentance."

But others said that while prayer might be helpful, it is not enough, and they are concerned that Lennon is not moving quickly on other fronts.

"There is certainly a role for the spiritual in getting out of this crisis, but it is only a limited role," said Ann Hagan Webb, New England co-coordinator of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. "What has happened is not spiritual; it is criminal and immoral. Prayer isn't going to fix it. Action is going to fix it. Real changes are going to fix it."

James E. Post, president of the lay group, Voice of the Faithful, sounded a similar note. "Prayer is necessary, but it's not sufficient," he said. "It has to be accompanied by truth-telling and dialogue. Part of healing has to be dialogue with the laity, and the priests, and the survivor community."

And the Rev. Robert W. Bullock, pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows Church in Sharon and a leader of the Boston Priests' Forum, noted that "a lot of parishes have done healing Masses" and that "people are concerned about who is doing the penance."

"This effort is absolutely necessary and appropriate -- there needs to be a lot of penance," he said. "But, what is necessary, along with penance, is to rebuild trust and confidence, and that will require not only prayer but also action. We may need some new and inventive procedures."

Lennon was not available yesterday, but a spokesman, the Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, said the archdiocese acknowledges that there is tension between its efforts on the spiritual and legal fronts.

"The dichotomy between what we're trying to do ritually and spiritually, and what is ongoing legally, is problematic, and everyone acknowledges that as a fact," he said. "We are talking about worship and healing while we also have an outside process that is at times adversarial and works counter to healing and reconciliation. But, in spite of that, we have to move forward."

The program will supplement the traditional rituals of Lent, including a request that adult Catholics plan to abstain from meat on Fridays, fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, give up some form of pleasure, and make contributions to charity. It will add several elements specifically acknowledging the abuse crisis, which resulted from revelations that more than 100 Boston priests had abused minors and in many cases did not lose their jobs as a result. Today priests will receive a variety of prayers reflecting on the abuse crisis that they can use during worship services throughout the season. The prayers will include some specially designed for parishes in which a priest abused minors, as well as a series of prayers that can be used by groups or individuals walking the Stations of the Cross.

Lennon has also blocked out a significant chunk of time to talk with priests. In each region, he plans to pray, meet, and then eat dinner with area priests before officiating at the public prayer services.

"We wanted to use the natural rhythms of our liturgical life since it is a season that calls us to acts of penance and growth of holiness," Coyne said. "It seemed logical to tie it to the present crisis in the church. We as a church are in need of doing penance, of conversion, and of growing in holiness."

Coyne said all priests and laypeople can participate, even though they may not personally be to blame for the crisis. He said the goal of the Lent program is "that we start to heal the wounds of sin and division that are part of our community, and that victim-survivors will see this as a sign of our willingness to acknowledge what we've done and to commit ourselves to make sure it doesn't happen again."

Michael Paulson can be reached at


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