Church Reform Monitor to Meet with Lay Group
Voice of the Faithful Leaders Try to Overcome Bishop Opposition

By Jeff Diamant
Star-Ledger [Newark NJ]
May 13, 2003

Voice of the Faithful is hoping the appearance of the woman hired by America's Catholic bishops to monitor reforms will encourage people to come to their meeting tonight and join their group.

Kathleen McChesney, a former FBI official, will talk at 7:30 tonight about the changes the church has made following the priest sex abuse scandal and her role in the process.

Voice of the Faithful, a group of Catholics who want increased roles for the laity in the church, formed in the aftermath of the scandal. Its membership grew quickly at first, but opposition from American bishops in seven dioceses -- including two in New Jersey -- has hurt its efforts.

The group is expecting McChesney to draw hundreds.

"A guest like this has a lot of broad appeal, not just to people who are members of Voice of the Faithful, but also for people who want to get themselves up to date on what's going on," said Maria Cleary, head of the northern New Jersey chapter of Voice of the Faithful.

The meeting will take place at Our Lady of the Holy Angels Church in Little Falls in Passaic County.

McChesney said it will be the first Voice of the Faithful meeting she has addressed.

"It's real important that people know what it is that bishops have promised to do and how they're going to implement the different things they promised to do," she said.

The group hopes that McChesney's appearance, combined with Brooklyn Bishop Thomas Daily lifting his ban on the group, will prompt Newark Archbishop John J. Myers and Camden Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio to lift their bans as well.

"We're just very hopeful that perhaps he (Archbishop Myers) will take a closer look at it now and perhaps might be willing to sit down and meet with us," Cleary said.

Spokesmen for Myers and DiMarzio say Daily's change of heart will not change their minds.

Myers also has been critical of McChesney.

In a letter to a Voice of the Faithful member last month, Myers wrote that McChesney's "decisions and the conduct of her office leave more than a few Bishops for whom she technically works in a state of perplexity."

Myers' spokesman said the letter did not mean the archbishop rejects the role of McChesney's office but referred, partially, to her decision to meet with Voice of the Faithful, which Myers has called "anti-Church and, ultimately, anti-Catholic."

McChesney's job includes helping dioceses implement new child-abuse prevention programs, conducting audits of their compliance, publishing the findings in a public report, and overseeing an academic study on the extent of child abuse in the Catholic church.

Yesterday, McChesney said meeting with Voice of the Faithful is not out of step.

"I meet with various groups who are interested in what the bishops are doing in response, and to protect against, child abuse," she said. "I wouldn't talk about theology or doctrine or some of those other areas."

Voice of the Faithful has drawn opposition from conservatives who suspect that its motives extend beyond clergy sex-abuse reform to incorporate liberal church agendas.

New Jersey organizers say Myers' and DiMarzio's bans have hurt the group, and that many churches in other dioceses do not welcome their meetings.

In March, the northern New Jersey affiliate invited 300 priests from the Newark and Paterson dioceses to attend a meeting. Only four showed, Cleary said.

Voice of the Faithful membership in New Jersey, though up sharply from last year, has begun to plateau, organizers said. The group has about 500 Garden State members. Nationally, it has an estimated 30,000 members.

Monthly meetings of the northern New Jersey group typically draw about 150 people, while those of the Camden chapter draw 10 to 20, said Kevin Gemmel, head of the group's efforts in South Jersey.

Voice of the Faithful was formed in Massachusetts after revelations that church leaders across the country had protected abusive priests by shuffling them among parishes.

The group has three stated goals: to support abuse victims, support "priests of integrity," and shape "structural change within" the Catholic Church.

It is the last goal that has drawn opposition from conservative critics, who worry its vagueness provides cover for dissenting agendas on women's ordination, marriage for priests and church teachings on sexuality.

Asked about the reasons for Myers' ban, his spokesman James Goodness cited an article in the August 2002 "Crisis," a conservative Catholic magazine.

"The archbishop read it and said, 'Yeah, this is similar to what I've been feeling,'" Goodness said.

The article, called "When Wolves Dress Like Sheep" and written by Crisis editor Deal Hudson, accuses the group of bait-and-switch tactics in its listing of goals.

"Everyone can rally behind the cry of supporting faithful priests and the abused, but 'change within the church' could encompass a variety of 'changes' that are well outside the Church's teaching," Hudson wrote.

"Most people agree," he continued, "that some sort of change is needed, but it dodges the REAL question: What kind of change? What role do lay Catholics have in changing the Church? And how do you know that you're keeping the authentic Faith?"

Hudson wrote that several speakers at Voice of the Faithful's convention last July espouse "radical views that are not in line with Church teaching on issues of women's ordination, abortion rights, and priestly celibacy."

But Bishop Daily of Brooklyn, in his April 29 letter reversing his ban, said he had reviewed the group's documents on its beliefs and found them in accord with church teachings.

Cleary said bishops should not ban Voice of the Faithful even if members hold dissenting views.

"We don't ... poll all our members and ask them how they feel about women's ordination," Cleary said. "But their opinion on that is their opinion. It's irrespective of other things."

In any case, they say, McChesney's meeting with Voice of the Faithful should not worry bishops.

"All he (Myers) says is "No, no, no,"I know who you are,"You're bad, you're naughty,'" said Luise Dittrich, a national Voice of the Faithful spokeswoman. "You can't associate with bad people? Well, Jesus ate with tax collectors."


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