O'Malley Will Meet Voice of the Faithful
Conference Friday Seen As Symbolic
By Michael Paulson
The Boston Globe
July 29, 2006
Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley has agreed to meet Friday with local leaders of Voice of the Faithful, marking the first time in nearly three years that he has sat down with the lay reform group that has energized a group of active churchgoers but is viewed with skepticism by some conservatives.
O'Malley's office downplayed the significance of the meeting, and said the cardinal has not revised the Archdiocese of Boston's policy toward the group, which includes a ban on meetings in parishes by chapters formed after October 2002, when the group was first banned by Cardinal Bernard F. Law .
O'Malley last met with the national organization in November 2003 and said he would reconsider the ban, but he did not make any change.
But leaders of the organization, which was formed in Wellesley at the height of the clergy sex abuse crisis in February 2002, view the gathering as symbolically significant, in that it demonstrates O'Malley's willingness to talk with a group that has been demonized in some quarters of the church.
O'Malley has not been critical of the group, and in fact appointed one of its founders, David Castaldi of Brookline, to lead an important archdiocesan committee overseeing the sale of property from parish closings.
The upcoming meeting with the leadership of the Boston chapter of Voice of the Faithful was apparently triggered when a group leader approached O'Malley this spring, during his 10-day pre-Pentecost pilgrimage to parishes that had been shepherded by sexually abusive priests, and raised the possibility of a meeting. O'Malley, who said the pilgrimage was to be an occasion for repentance and hope, agreed to talk with the group, and his office then scheduled it.
"In response to a request by representatives of Voice of the Faithful, Cardinal Sean and Father Richard M. Erikson , vicar general and moderator of the curia, will meet with those representatives," O'Malley's spokesman, Terrence C. Donilon , wrote in an e-mail. "By way of the request, the VOTF representatives expressed a desire to be helpful to the Archdiocese. Cardinal Sean continues to demonstrate a willingness and openness to dialogue, and is committed to vibrant parish life throughout the church of Boston. We welcome the participation of all people who wish to assist with this work."
Voice of the Faithful leaders would not describe their specific agenda for the meeting, which they said they had wanted to keep private until after it takes place.
But the group's spokesman, John Moynihan , said, "We see this as very significant."
"Some of the signs we see are very good signs," said Moynihan, citing O'Malley's unprecedented disclosure in April of a wide array of documents about the archdiocese's financial situation. "We would like to get a discussion going."
Voice of the Faithful, headquartered in Newton, has affiliates across Massachusetts and across the country. It has had a three-point agenda since its founding: supporting victims of abuse, supporting "priests of integrity, " and, the goal that is most controversial with the archdiocese, "to shape structural change within the church."
The group's leaders have focused on administrative, rather than doctrinal, concerns, but some members would like the organization to debate issues such as the ordination of women.
In Boston, the group has been advocating legislative changes to remove or modify statutes of limitations that make it difficult to bring legal cases that stem from abuse episodes alleged to have occurred years ago, and the group has also been urging the archdiocese to publicly list names of abusive priests.
Because of the local chapter's focus on national concerns such as financial accountability, the group has not been as active as others on local parish closings.
A scholar who has followed the Voice of the Faithful movement said he views O'Malley's willingness to sit down with the group as symbolically important.
"Any meeting of VOTF and the cardinal is significant, simply as an indicator that some form of communication has been kept open between the chancery and independent Catholic lay people, especially those with a generally more progressive outlook," said the Rev. William A. Clark , an assistant professor of religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester.
"The fact that he would continue to acknowledge them -- even now that he is definitely able to put his own ` stamp' on the archdiocese, following his elevation as cardinal -- is encouraging in itself. It means that dialogue in some form is still possible, even if it is a long way from satisfying both those whose emphasis is ongoing reform and those whose emphasis is strengthening traditional authority structures."
Elsewhere in the country, the group's relationship with bishops is mixed as it "continues to struggle with official disapproval in some places and with marginalization in others," Clark said.
Bishop Richard G. Lennon , who served as administrator of the Boston Archdiocese from Law's resignation in 2002 until O'Malley's installation in 2003, met with the leadership of Voice of the Faithful, but declined to lift the ban on parish meetings, and tried unsuccessfully to bar Catholic Charities from accepting money raised by the group.
O'Malley's meeting with the group was so long ago that his current group of aides did not remember it when queried by a Globe reporter -- only one of the four people who accompanied O'Malley at the time still works at the chancery -- and that meeting appears to have resulted in no change in posture toward the organization.
The organization has claimed 30,000 members across the country, but the number is difficult to verify and consists largely of people who have agreed to receive e-mails from the group. A study of the organization last year, by scholars at the Catholic University of America, found its membership to be highly educated, predominantly female, and with a large group -- about one third -- of retirees. About one-half described themselves as politically liberal. And about two-thirds said they attend Mass at least once a week -- more than twice the rate for the general Catholic population.
Michael Paulson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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