Voicing Catholic Concerns

By Michael Clancy
The Arizona Republic
April 30, 2003

A small group of Valley Catholics has started meeting with hopes of reforming the church in light of the clergy sex-abuse scandal.

While the local chapter of Voice of the Faithful is made up of practicing Catholics, it is not part of, or sanctioned by, the Phoenix Diocese.

The organization first arose in Boston in response to the sex-abuse crisis there. It was very vocal shortly before Cardinal Bernard Law decided to step down.

Sandy Simonson, 32, of Phoenix, is a typical member. She grew up in the church in Pinetop.

Now a mother and an executive at a local bank, she still makes time for religion. She has read Scripture during Mass, helped distribute communion, worked with youth, even sung in the choir.

But she says she has struggled with how some priests have behaved, and how some bishops have responded ever since the priest sexual-abuse scandal erupted last year.

"I have significant problems with what has been going on," she said. "This is like the elephant in the room that no one will discuss."

Her concerns were amplified when Phoenix Bishop Thomas O'Brien told her in a letter last year, "You do not understand your role as a Catholic in the church or the way that leadership is to operate."

O'Brien's office says she misunderstood the letter, which they say was written specifically in response to her decision to stop donating money to the church.

Simonson said her attempts to discuss the crisis with her parish priests have been rebuffed.

"If I were talking to my priest about this, I wouldn't have reached this point," she said.

That point is to take the role of regional coordinator of Voice of the Faithful in Phoenix. She and dozens of others met for the first time in February and now meet the last Sunday of each month.

Among them are Jim Lawler, 65, a native of Boston who moved to Phoenix two years ago. Because the crisis erupted in Boston, he followed it closely, communicating with Voice of the Faithful's national office throughout. He said his major concern is accountability among church leaders. "The laity should have more say on how the administration of the church is run," he said. "We need a bigger voice at the parish level."

Twenty people were at the last meeting, most of them middle-aged or older. Some there identified themselves as victims of clergy abuse.

Nationally, Voice of the Faithful has called for a full and open discussion with church leaders about the causes of the sexual-abuse crisis. It backs fundamental change in the church in areas of governance and accountability, such as lay approval of pastors.

The organization claims no interest in changing church doctrine on such issues as priestly celibacy.

Since its founding a year ago, it has spread from the Boston area to include chapters in 40 states and 21 countries, with close to 30,000 people participating.

The Phoenix group is just getting going. Much of its April meeting concerned how to get the word out to attract more people. Simonson told the group that requests to print meeting notices in church bulletins and the Catholic Sun, the diocesan newspaper, have been ignored or rejected.

The group has requested O'Brien's permission to meet on church property. Nationwide, bishops have been divided on the question. O'Brien has not responded to the request, but spokeswoman Kim Sue Lia Perkes said that until the group gets better organized and makes its positions clear, the diocese would "reserve judgment."

Simonson said she never anticipated crossing swords with the diocese.

"We're doing this out of love for the church," Simonson said. "The crisis is only a symptom of a larger issue, and lay Catholics need to step up and take a role."

She said the idea of leaving the church has barely crossed her mind.

"I would rather stay and try to improve things for myself and my family and all Catholics, rather than go somewhere else that will only have different problems, and won't have the rich history and spirituality that exists within the Catholic Church," she said.

Simonson said the group, while concerned with access and accountability, is not seeking to oust O'Brien.

"This is not about him in any way," she said. "It's about the whole church culture of secrecy."

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