Catholics Use Forum to Talk, Heal
Coordinators for Local Chapter of Voice of Faithful Hope Movement Spurs Discussion of Abuse Scandal

By Colette M. Jenkins
Beacon Journal [Cleveland OH]
Downloaded May 12, 2003

Thomas Byrne is troubled by the silence plaguing faithful Catholics when it comes to discussing the clergy sex abuse scandal that has rocked his church for more than a year.

"People that I've known since parochial Catholic school have been deeply hurt by what has happened," said Byrne, a parishioner at St. Basil the Great in Brecksville. "They are angry in a very sensitive way. They need to know there is a safe place where they can express themselves."

So Byrne is helping to coordinate a local chapter of a movement called Voice of the Faithful to give the 800,000 Catholics in the eight-county Cleveland Diocese a forum for discussing the crisis and building bridges for healing.

Voice of the Faithful began in January 2002 in the basement of a parish school in an upscale suburb of Boston, which became the focal point of outrage after it was revealed that some Catholic bishops had for decades covered up the sexual abuse of minors by priests.

The organization, which began as a listening session of 30 people, now has about 25,000 members in more than 40 states and 21 countries and aims to bring about "meaningful reform" that holds the church hierarchy accountable for its behavior.

The newly formed Cleveland/Akron Voice of the Faithful has more than 100 local members who represent about 45 parishes in all eight counties of the diocese, including Summit, Medina and Wayne.

Voice of the Faithful has a three-part mission -- supporting victims of clergy sexual abuse, encouraging priests of integrity, and bringing about structural change in the church.

It is this third objective that some bishops have described as potentially divisive.

Cleveland church officials said the local chapter is neither affiliated with nor sanctioned by the diocese. But they acknowledge that Voice of the Faithful coordinators have kept the diocese informed of their plans, since they began organizing in January.

"My experience in speaking with them is that they love the church and are very willing to work with the bishop and within the guidelines of the church," said Sister Rita Mary Harwood, who serves on the administrative staff of Bishop Anthony M. Pilla. "This is an expression of people really wanting to be involved and contribute to their church, and an expression of a group trying to do that in a very constructive way."

Janet Sherman, a resident of Bay Village in western Cuyahoga County and a member of the coordinating committee, said the group is grateful for the understanding of diocesan officials, because one of the tasks of Voice of the Faithful members is to help people understand that the organization is not antagonistic.

"It's not us against them," Sherman said. "It's us. We love the church and we want to help with the healing process. We are in the process of formulating our plans, but we know we want to see what we can do to move on and become a healthier church."

Allegations of sex abuse within the Catholic Church gained national attention in January 2002 during the trial of John Geoghan, a former Boston priest accused of abusing more than 100 children while being shuffled from parish to parish. He was convicted of indecent assault and battery and sentenced to as long as 10 years in prison.

After that, allegations began surfacing against priests across the country. Fifteen Cleveland Diocese priests accused of abuse eventually were placed on administrative leave.

Their cases will be reviewed by a new diocesan board named by Pilla on Friday. This board was created to assess the credibility of sexual abuse allegations against diocese employees.

The local Voice of the Faithful group has sponsored two meetings since its formation. Each meeting included a speaker and a formal listening session to allow those in attendance an opportunity to be heard. William Denihan, who headed the independent commission that drafted a new diocesan policy on sexual abuse, spoke at the last meeting.

The next meeting will be at 2 p.m. June 8 at St. Clarence Church, 30106 Lorain Road, North Olmsted. The speaker will be the father of a sex abuse victim from North Canton.

Some Voice of the Faithful groups have sponsored healing Masses, fund-raisers and education and public awareness forums, and the Cleveland/Akron chapter is considering such activities, too. Chapter coordinators would like to meet with the bishop.

One of the goals of the Voice of the Faithful movement is to establish a chapter in every parish. One such parish group is being created at St. Christopher Church in Rocky River, where Sherman and another coordinating committee member, Fred McGunagle, are parishioners.

McGunagle, who lives in Westlake, said he wants people to understand that Voice of the Faithful members are all faithful, active Catholics who want to resolve the current crisis in the church.

"We help serve Communion," McGunagle said. "We read Scripture at Mass. We usher. We pass the collection basket. We put money in the collection basket. We all care about our church.

"When our church is hurt, we are hurt. When our church is shamed, we are shamed. We are hurt and we are shamed and we want to do something about it."

For more information about Voice of the Faithful, visit the organization's Web site at


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