Catholic Lay Group Still Seeking Its Voice in the Church

By Christine McConville
Boston Globe
May 8, 2003

Bob Morris stood before 65 people in the chilly basement of Saint Eulalia's Church in Winchester last week and took a deep breath. It was time for a pep talk.

"Some say that Voice of the Faithful is on the fringes of the Catholic Church," Morris said into the microphone. "But how many of you have taught [religious education]?" he asked.

Several people in the crowd raised their hands.

"How many of you have served as eucharistic ministers? How many of you are on your parish councils? How many of you participate in food pantries and other service endeavors?" he continued, becoming more animated with each question, as more hands shot up.

Voice of the Faithful was started in Wellesley in February 2002 by Catholics upset by the clergy sex abuse crisis. The group has grown into a nationwide organization that claims to have 30,000 members, including about 10,000 in Eastern Massachusetts. The Winchester chapter, one of the first in the suburbs northwest of Boston, was formed May 13 last year.

Last week, the lay organization won a victory when Bishop Thomas V. Daily of Brooklyn, N.Y., became the first bishop in the United States to reverse a ban that kept it off church property. Daily had banned the group in his diocese out of concern that the agenda of some members ran contrary to church teachings and discipline, but in a letter last week he said the group's positions are "in accord with the teachings of the church."

However, the group is still banned from church property in all or part of seven other dioceses, including Boston, where chapters started after last Oct. 12 are not permitted to meet in parish halls and other church buildings.

The Rev. Christopher Coyne, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Boston, said this week that Bishop Richard G. Lennon, interim head of the archdiocese, continues to meet with Voice of the Faithful officials but has not lifted the ban.

"We never said that the Voice of the Faithful members aren't good and faithful Catholics," said Coyne. "They are part of our church and many were involved and active before all this happened.

"Our main issue is not with the groups but with certain positions and statements the leadership has made that have raised concerns," Coyne said. He refused to detail those concerns.

Church leaders in other parts of the country have been more harsh in their criticism. And some conservative Catholics have charged that the group is a front for liberals and is anti-Catholic.

But Voice of the Faithful officials have denied the charges, and people such as Morris, who have played important grassroots roles in the development of the group's dozens of chapters throughout the Boston area, have said all along that the group is not a refuge for renegade Catholics.

"It's not even remotely true," Morris said last week, before word of the New York decision surfaced.

Sitting next to him at the meeting last week, Christina Hurley of Arlington nodded.

"What does a representative Catholic look like?" she asked. "If it's not us, I'd like to know who they are."

Throughout the region, Morris, Hurley, and many others have said they are trying to give the Catholic laity more say in a church where the hierarchy holds much of the power.

Suzy Nauman of Arlington is an outreach worker for Voice of the Faithful to different parish affiliates. All affiliates, whether in Westford, Harvard, or Lowell, share three goals, she said. The groups support people who have been sexually abused by priests; they support priests of integrity; and they work to change the church's structure so laity have more of a voice.

She added, however: "Each group has its own particular personality. They can determine what is most important to them."

Behind the scenes, members of the local chapters are busy.

"It's not on the front pages like it was, but we are meeting every week. ... I don't doubt that we will continue," Morris said.

The Winchester group has brought in theologians and others to discuss the church and change. Writer James Carroll attracted a crowd of about 500 for a talk. The Rev. Robert Bullock, the head of the Boston Priest Forum, a organization of Boston-area priests advocating for change, drew about 350.

The Winchester group has worked to strengthen ties between priests and affiliate members. They just held a potluck supper for 10 local priests and 75 lay people. The idea for the supper came from a survey of 30 local priests that group members conducted last year. The priests told the Voice of the Faithful members they wanted opportunities to socialize with laity as well as to meet with the survivors of clergy sexual abuse to talk about better ways to handle abuse allegations.

Other Winchester members raised $1,000 to pay for 11 holiday gift baskets for the survivors.

And that's just in Winchester.

The Westford/Chelmsford Voice of the Faithful collected $2,000 in donations to help send survivors to a bishop's conference in Washington, D.C.

Local groups have the support of area priests, too.

"Something has to be done," said the Rev. Francis Glynn of St. Anthony's Parish in Lowell. "People have been traumatized, and they've been hurt and disgusted."

A loss of confidence in church leaders by lay members who are active in their parishes, coupled with a severe shortage of priests, leaves the church with few choices except change, Glynn said.

At their meeting last week, Winchester chapter members talked of actions they might take to affect some change. Some discussed a strategy for having their opinions count when the next archbishop of Boston is selected. Others spoke of how the archdiocese needs a better way to determine if a priest accused of sexual abuse is guilty of the charge.

That issue hits particularly close to home. The Winchester affiliate was formed last May with the help of the Rev. Victor C. LaVoie, who was then pastor of St. Eulalia's.

But on July 25, LaVoie was removed from the parish and placed on administrative leave by the archdiocese of Boston after an allegation that he sexually abused a minor. Lavoie's attorney, James F. O'Brien, said that a second allegation surfaced this year. Both of the alleged incidents date back 20 years, O'Brien said.

LaVoie could not be reached for comment but O'Brien said his client is not guilty.

Coyne refused to discuss the case.

O'Brien said the archdiocese is still working on LaVoie's case. He said LaVoie appealed his suspension to the Vatican in November because he was tired of waiting for an answer from the archdiocese.

Some of his former parishioners are frustrated, too.

"We are told that his case is under review, and we are just waiting to hear," Hurley said.

Throughout the suburbs northwest of Boston, Voice of the Faithful members are confronting what they say is the need for change in the church.

Stacey Quealey, a member of the chapter from Saint Michael's Parish in North Andover, said the group is studying the workings of the church and its hierarchy, and passing the knowledge on to others. She said she became active as the sexual abuse scandal unfolded.

"Once it became clear that the hierarchy wasn't going to deal with this in a transparent manner, the laity had to become more involved," she said.

A few months after it was formed, the St. Michael's Voice of the Faithful chapter was briefly banned from church property last fall by an order from Auxilliary Bishop Emilio S. Allue. But the order was reversed by Cardinal Bernard F. Law, then archbishop of Boston, who said Allue had misunderstood a policy that still keeps chapters formed after Oct. 12 last year from using church property.

Mike Gustin of Westford, the president of the Westford/Chelmsford chapter of Voice of the Faithful, said he's seeing progress in the long task of changing attitudes.

"This is not a sprint, it's a marathon. You don't take a culture and a church that's 2,000 years old and in 12 months, expect to make any significant kinds of change," he said.

But Gustin is encouraged that two members of his group have been elected to their parish councils.

Meanwhile, in Winchester, John Mahoney of Lexington has noticed progress, too, especially as affiliate members work to mak e their parish councils more dynamic and more representative of the parishioners.

And Ruth Kiley of Woburn said she keeps coming back to the Winchester meetings because, whatever happens, she wants to support "priests of integrity."

When the scandal broke last year, she thought about her two sons and the Sunday mornings they spent as altar boys.

"Thankfully, they served with priests of integrity, but it could have happened to them," she said.

Christine McConville's email is

This story ran on page N1 of the Boston Globe on 5/8/2003.


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