Activist Fighting Another War
Doctor Who Battled Nuclear Weapons Turns His Attention to Crisis in Catholic Church

By Judith Cebula
Indianapolis Star [Indianapolis IND]
June 6, 2003

The abstract glass sculpture on Dr. James Muller's desk in suburban Boston reminds him of home -- of Indianapolis, where he grew up steeped in all that is good about being Catholic.

Church leaders in the Indianapolis Archdiocese gave the sculpture to him five years ago, honoring the cardiologist and antinuclear activist during its annual celebration of Catholic schools.

Muller is a poster child for the value of Catholic education. The oldest of six children, he was raised in St. Joan of Arc, a Northside parish, graduated from the parish school, and went on to Cathedral High School and then the University of Notre Dame.

But in January 2002, when the Catholic Church in Boston was beginning to learn about the way church leaders had covered up the sexual abuse scandal, Muller wanted to destroy the stunning, translucent-green glass sculpture.

"I wanted to smash it against the floor -- I was that angry," Muller said during a recent telephone interview. "Catholic values had been debased in Boston so terribly. Young boys had been raped by their priests, and a cardinal covered it up. I wanted to smash it."

He didn't. Instead he helped create Voice of the Faithful, a movement of lay people trying to transform the Catholic Church in America by seeking to share power with its bishops, archbishops and cardinals.

Muller returns to Indianapolis today to speak about the movement . The Indiana chapter of Voice of the Faithful has organized the event to encourage activism among Central Indiana Catholics concerned about the abuse scandal that has affected churches here.

Since last spring, three priests in the Indianapolis Archdiocese have resigned from ministry after allegations of sexual abuse against them emerged. And lawyers in southern Indiana have filed a lawsuit against the archdiocese on behalf of nearly a dozen alleged victims of a priest who died in 1972.

"We in Voice of the Faithful have always felt the sex scandal was a symptom of a deeper problem, the problem of unbalanced power in the church, which is not healthy," Muller said.

The 60-year-old doctor believes Catholics will one day share full governance in the church with their priests and bishops. The vision may not be so lofty for a man who transformed his personal concern about nuclear war into an international effort to ease Cold War tensions between the United States and the former Soviet Union.

In 1985, that effort, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, won the Nobel Peace Prize.

"I'm sure people thought I was crazy when I decided to work to prevent nuclear war," Muller said. "And I suspect there are people who think it's crazy to try to change the church."

In February 2002, he thought about boycotting Mass at his parish but showed up instead, met with 25 other concerned parishioners and formed Voice of the Faithful.

Within two months, hundreds of Catholics from across the Boston Archdiocese were gathering at the Monday night meetings. Within a year, more than 50,000 people were connected to the movement through e-mail and chapters in parishes and dioceses nationwide.

Muller believes lay people can share leadership with priests and bishops because, since childhood, he has seen Catholic clergy as human beings and not autocrats. The view was shaped the most by his uncle, the late Rev. Paul Courtney.

During the 1950s, Courtney was pastor at St. Luke on the Northside. He regularly welcomed Muller and his brothers and sisters at the rectory. He was part of family celebrations and vacations.

Ironically, Courtney was a very conservative priest who was removed from his parish after publicizing his opposition to the archdiocese's plans to modernize SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral.

When parishioners complained to the bishop and said they wanted their priest back, Courtney returned to his pulpit.

"That's a good example of the power of the laity," Muller said. "They were a miniature Voice of the Faithful way back then."

In Indiana, Catholics in each of the state's five dioceses belong to Voice of the Faithful. An estimated 200 activists are organizing support groups for the victims of clergy abuse; supporting good priests who have harmed no one; and working to relax the statute of limitations in Indiana laws against child sexual abuse.

But the Indiana coordinator for the movement contends more Catholics need to become activists.

Lola McIntyre, Carmel, is a member of Immaculate Heart of Mary parish in Indianapolis. She said she hopes Muller will inspire Hoosier Catholics to activism.

"It's my hope that in hearing Jim Muller's story -- the story of someone whose faith and education were shaped right here -- they will see their own potential to help make the church better," McIntyre said.

Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein was scheduled to meet with Muller at the Catholic Center on Thursday. The archbishop has declined repeated requests from local Voice of the Faithful members that he release specific information about the extent of the clergy abuse problem in the archdiocese.

And church officials who run the archdiocese's weekly newspaper are refusing to write about Muller's Indianapolis visit or accept paid advertisements about it. Associate publisher William Bruns said church leaders need to learn more about Voice of the Faithful and its mission before giving any appearance that it supports the movement.

Muller said he is returning to Indiana to educate and to share his conviction that Voice of the Faithful grew out of what he learned growing up Catholic in Indianapolis.

"I was prepared to become part of Voice of the Faithful by my church because the Catholic Church taught me to speak out when I saw injustice," Muller said. "It's simply what Catholics do."


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