Area Catholics Join National Support Group

By Peter Smith
The Courier-Journal [Louisville, KY]
Downloaded April 26, 2003

A group of Louisville-area Catholics is forming a local chapter of an organization that seeks greater lay involvement in the Catholic Church, blaming the top-down management of the church for allowing the child-sexual-abuse scandal to occur.

About a dozen people met in a park across from the Cathedral of the Assumption in downtown Louisville yesterday afternoon to announce the formation of the affiliate of Voice of the Faithful, a group that has clashed with bishops in other dioceses.

But Shannon Whelan, team leader of the new chapter, said she hoped to develop a cooperative relationship with Archbishop Thomas C. Kelly and the Archdiocese of Louisville.

The group is seeking "to work with the church and not against it in dealing with the changes that must take place," she said, citing the organization's motto, "Keep the faith, change the church."

Cal Pfeiffer, treasurer of the local chapter, said the sexual-abuse crisis in the Catholic Church has raised "some serious fundamental questions that as yet have not been answered."

Pfeiffer, who said he was one of dozens of children molested by the Rev. Louis Miller at Holy Spirit Church in the early 1960s, said many Catholics are frustrated in trying to get answers to "how and why did this happen."

Whelan said the group has about 40 to 50 people "at different levels of participation."

In a written statement yesterday, the Archdiocese of Louisville said it "encourages all groups who wish to support victims of abuse and who wish to help the church as it works to heal the pain of this crisis."

The statement adds that the archdiocese "has a long history of lay involvement in planning and decision-making through parish councils, schools boards, and other consultative bodies, and it has long supported the development of lay ministry and lay volunteers. We are confident that the involvement of dedicated lay Catholics will help the church address its challenges and continue its mission of service to the people of Central Kentucky."

Voice of the Faithful was founded by lay Catholics in a Massachusetts church basement last year in reaction to the sexual-abuse crisis that erupted in Boston and spread worldwide. The group claims 30,000 members in several countries and operates a headquarters in Newton, Mass., with the equivalent of seven full-time staff members.

Deliberately avoiding hot-button doctrinal debates on topics such as ordaining women or married men, the group cites three goals: to support victims of sexual abuse, to support "priests of integrity" and to foster structural changes in how the church is governed.

"We do want to change aspects of the culture of the church - those having to do with secrecy, accountability, disclosure and clerical isolation from laity - that prevents them from making good decisions," said Luise Dittrich, spokeswoman for the group headquarters.

The new local chapter is not taking a stand on calls by some people for the resignation of Kelly.

"Some individual members believe he should resign while others believe he has been a part of creating the crisis and should stay in his position to clean it up," she said.

But she said the group was disappointed with a recent statement of support for Kelly, approved by two organizations of local priests. She said group members are "dissatisfied with the failure of their statement to acknowledge the larger issue of the hierarchy's cover-up of the abuse."

Whelan, a parishioner at St. Barnabas Church, added that she believes the reforming Second Vatican Council of the 1960s provides for a much greater role for lay people in the governance of the church than has actually taken place.

The international Voice of the Faithful Web site has proposed more transparent finances and giving parishioners a say in such things as the appointments of their pastors.

"I was shocked and deeply saddened my church appeared to be a safe haven for pedophiles," said group member Bonnie Miles. "I could either leave the church or try to change it." She said it's important to have "a laity that doesn't rubber-stamp decisions made by the hierarchy."

Voice of the Faithful chapters have been banned from meeting on church property in eight dioceses, Dittrich said. The group also raised controversy in the Archdiocese of Boston when it collected donations from Catholics who withheld money from the offering plate and donated it separately to the Boston-area Catholic Charities.

But Whelan said Louisville-area group members have met with Kelly and with Brian Reynolds, chancellor and chief administrative officer of the archdiocese, and have started off on a positive tone.

"We are Louisvillians, we are Southerners, we'd like to take a cooperative stance, but it really is up to the archdiocese," she said. She said the group didn't want to sponsor actions such as withholding offerings, "but those things are options."

Reynolds described the meeting with the group as positive and said several group members have been involved in parish work in the past. The archdiocese has placed no restrictions on where it can meet.

He said the Louisville archdiocese has been open in publishing audited annual financial statements and its strategic goals.

Such things "are not common in every diocese," he said. He said lay people started the earliest Voice of the Faithful chapters in "reaction to not having a voice" in their dioceses, "but that's not the norm" in the Louisville archdiocese. The group has held some preliminary meetings and plans an organizational meeting on the evening of May 6 at The Barn, a building on the premises of the Passionist Monastery at 1924 Newburg Road.

Pam McDermott, the new-member coordinator for the chapter, said she was motivated to join partly because of the experience of her own parish, St. Agnes, whose pastor resigned in December following accusations of sexual abuse.

"It happened very close to home, and I want to be sure my children are safe and all children are safe," she said.But Whelan said the church needs to do a better job of measuring how well its current lay leadership is doing.

"Simply putting people in place is not enough," she said, saying the church needs to ask, "Does everybody believe the level of involvement is adequate?"

The Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the national Catholic magazine America and an author of several books on Catholic Church governance, said that past Catholic reform movements have been led by bishops or religious orders such as the Franciscans.

A democratization movement led by lay people faces an uphill battle, he said.

"Most people have a life to live, and they don't come to church to debate, they don't come to church to argue," he said. "They come to be nourished by the gospel and the sacraments."

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