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Voice of the Faithful
'Keep the Faith, Change the Church'

By John Bookser Feister

What started in a Massachusetts parish claims more than 30,000 members nationally a year later.

Q U I C K S C A N

A Movement Is Born
'Keep the Faith, Change the Church'
Krueger's Defense of VOTF
Standing With Survivors
Voice of the Faithful: Mission Statement

St. Anthony Messenger - Voice of the Faithful: Keeping the Faith, Change the Church

Illustrations by
Julie Lonneman

Design by
Jeanne Kortekamp

Audio Excerpts From St. Anthony Messenger's Interview (choose one):

When Suzy Nauman first saw the TV image of a lone protester outside Boston's Holy Cross Cathedral in February 2002, she was moved to compassion and action. The man, Steve Lynch, claimed he had been abused as an altar boy by a priest. With daily headlines of clergy abuse cover-up in Boston, he went public.

Nauman, a Boston suburbanite and social worker, knew the lifelong effects of abuse: She had once directed a treatment program for sexually abused children, in her hometown of Covington, Kentucky. She moved to Boston nine years ago for her husband's oncology practice after the couple had served as Jesuit Volunteers in East Los Angeles.

She now found herself a full-time soccer mom in Arlington, Massachusetts, driving a Honda Odyssey van, raising three children, serving as a CCD teacher and a eucharistic minister at nearby St. Eulalia parish. Raised among 11 children in a strong Catholic family, she says, "It's always been important to me to provide a spiritual foundation for my kids. When this crisis hit and I realized how horrific it really is, to sit back and ignore it would have been hypocritical. What would that model for my children? I knew I had to get involved."

Nauman also knew from her training and faith that victims of sexual abuse, more than anything else, need the support of the community. When the time is right, they need to share their story, to move from the realm of shame and secrecy into the sometimes painful light of healing. So Nauman went down to the cathedral and joined the small group who began coming to stand in solidarity with Lynch.

As the awful truth of widespread abuse and cover-up unfolded in Boston, the crowd of victims and their supporters grew. The group called itself Coalition of Catholics and Survivors. "Catholics were responding all over the Boston area. They hadn't quite connected with one another yet," she recalls.

Meeting outside the cathedral, they compared notes. They weren't aware of it at the time, but parishioners across the country were sitting across kitchen tables having some of the same discussions: What is this news! Can I still trust my Church? How widespread is this problem? What can we do about it?

Fifteen minutes from Nauman's home, a group, at the invitation of their pastor, Father Thomas Powers, began meeting at St. John the Evangelist Parish School in Wellesley to discuss what was happening to their archdiocese. The weekly meeting grew and grew as TV crews showed up and people from across town started to attend. Nauman heard about it, but was teaching CCD on Monday evenings. A friend of hers had been attending and told her, "You can practically see the Holy Spirit walking around in there!" At her first opportunity, in April 2002, she attended a meeting of the group now calling itself Voice of the Faithful.

"There were hundreds of people in that room! It was very exciting," she recalls, speaking of the basement room at St. John's School. When the call for any first-time attendees was made, Suzy found the courage to introduce herself to the group. "I don't know what I thought I was doing!" she says. "It just came out." She told them the story of her 16-year-old son's decision to quit going to Church and of her promise: "Don't worry, Nicky. I'm going to fix it and then you can come back."

A Movement Is Born

Nauman's story is not unlike many of those who found their way to Voice of the Faithful (VOTF). Catholics from suburban St. John's and nearby parishes started the group. They were led by the renowned cardiologist Jim Muller, founder of the Nobel-awarded International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. The Notre Dame alumnus and St. John's parishioner later told Notre Dame magazine that, faced with a choice of quitting the Church or helping to change it, he felt compelled toward the latter.

Others well experienced in the business community joined the effort, including Boston University business professor Jim Post, who serves as president, and executive director Steve Krueger, an investment counselor who had served on the pastoral council for the Archdiocese of Boston and his own parish council at nearby St. Ignatius Parish. St. John's parishioner Mary Ann Keyes, a former lay missioner, Montessori preschool administrator and catechist with Boston Catholic TV, brings a grandmother's passion and experience to the task.

Those and other VOTF founders were featured in Newsweek magazine last December among a handful of movers and shakers: "Who's Next for 2003." That magazine credited VOTF with a key role in the December resignation of Cardinal Law.

Books will be written about the Wellesley gathering that became a way for lay Catholics from all over to respond to the shock and scandal in their Church. Abuse-survivor groups had kept up the protests at Holy Cross Cathedral all year, groups like VOTF were meeting in parishes and a group of Boston priests eventually called for Cardinal Law's resignation. Along the way Cardinal Law banned VOTF from using Church property, then, under public pressure, partially withdrew the ban.

As the abuse crisis spread—and along with it VOTF—bishops in seven other dioceses also enacted a ban on VOTF. At the same time, leaders of the U.S. bishops' National Review Board and the bishops' newly appointed child-protection director, Kathleen McChesney, expressed support for the organization. McChesney encouraged bishops to allow the group to meet on Church property.

In July 2002, Voice of the Faithful held a charter convention, filling the Hynes Auditorium in downtown Boston with 4,000 attendees, many from faraway places. A new and perhaps permanent lay organization was being founded, and not without controversy.

Nauman, one of scores of volunteers to join the Wellesley effort, had begun helping in April 2002 by responding to the growing number of e-mails coming in to VOTF from around the country. An extensive Web site, www.VOTF.org, was helping spread the word. Her volunteer job grew as she kept correspondence with groups everywhere who wanted to start affiliates in their parishes.

Earlier this year, she was invited to join the staff part-time, working with Voice of the Faithful charter member Mary Ann Keyes to help establish new affiliates. At the time of our interview, on St. Patrick's Day 2003, there were 162 affiliates with well over 30,000 members nationally. Keyes predicts 300 affiliates within a year.

'Keep the Faith, Change the Church'

The premise of VOTF seems simple enough: If lay Catholics had a stronger voice in the Church, we wouldn't be in the mess we're in today. (The presumption is that laypeople would not have gone along with decisions that put children at risk.) Their trademarked motto seems simple, too: "Keep the Faith, Change the Church." In truth, though, things are a bit more complicated.

Bishops tend to be leery of any group with a Church-reform agenda. And the growth of VOTF has been spontaneous.

"It's kind of like cat herding," Executive Director Steve Krueger jokes, referring to cats' notorious independence. He's speaking of a grassroots movement led by all manner of volunteers. Some are new to this type of work, others are more experienced. Some are willing to limit their activities to VOTF's well-defined goals that work within Church law; others are bringing more strident agendas to the table.

Indeed, during the early days the group painstakingly built consensus around a mission statement (see box below) and three goals that remain today: 1. Support those who have been abused. 2. Support priests of integrity. 3. Shape structural change within the Church.

Supporting good priests may be easy enough—and everyone knows it's needed. Supporting those who have been abused, some of whom may be suing the Church, sadly has sometimes put VOTF members at odds with Church leaders. But, as Nauman observes, supporting victims of abuse is where Church leaders in Boston failed the worst.

Finally, there's been emotional debate, at least in its early stages, about how to achieve greater lay participation in Church structures. That talk brought quick negative reaction from some bishops and hesitancy from most of the rest.

Eight bishops have come out publicly against Voice of the Faithful, and many pastors in other dioceses will not allow Voice affiliates to use Church facilities. Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport described the group as dissenters, telling reporters at the USCCB meeting last November that their "Change the Church" motto is problematic. Archbishop John J. Myers of Newark called the group "anti-Church and, ultimately, anti-Catholic."

"They're making us feel like heretics," says Mary Ann Keyes, "like sheep that have been cut out of the fold. It's wrong," she says with determination. She sees VOTF members as parish leaders who want to build up the Church. "We're helping to bring healing and wakening people to lay involvement. It's up to us."

Krueger's Defense of VOTF

VOTF Executive Director Steve Krueger echoes that theme of greater lay involvement as a key to resolving the Church crisis. He was discerning whether he had a vocation to the priesthood, but felt new conviction in his lay calling after attending a 2001 seminar on Vatican II at Boston College, led by Archdiocese of Boston Director of Planning Bob McMillan, S.J.

"He told us that, in order for the Church to survive, the laity are going to need to step up to the plate," recalls Krueger. "I left that seminar wondering, ‘How do we take our baptismal priestly ministry to heart?'"

Months later the abuse crisis broke, and Krueger felt compelled to join other laity who were stepping up to the plate in the nearby parish at Wellesley. By June he had been hired as executive director of the new organization. Now he leads 11 staff (many part-time) and about 20 volunteers in VOTF's headquarters in Newton, Massachusetts.

The office itself is a simple affair—five rooms furnished mostly with the kind of folding tables used for bingo halls or school cafeterias. Posters (mission statements, goals, slogans) and maps clutter the walls; computers, phones and stacks of paper are everywhere. People here obviously haven't had much time to settle in.

Along with other VOTF members, Krueger is puzzled and taken aback by some bishops' distrust of the organization. He cites his own membership polls in defense against the claim of being anti-Catholic: "About 80 percent of our members consider themselves to be very active in their parishes." Those drawn to VOTF are those "heavily invested in their faith," he adds.

The charge of dissidence raises his hackles: "There's almost a cruelty to that statement. Not only does it put a smear on local Catholics who are in Voice of the Faithful, it's almost a threat against any Catholic who has a question about the Church and wants an answer!"

Rather than being divisive, as some of VOTF's critics claim, Krueger insists that his organization is a voice of unity.

Bishop Lori, who banned VOTF, speaks of this unity, too, using the term communio, which he told reporters at the bishops' meeting in November is "not about pushing an agenda, but opening our hearts to a truth which sets us free." His objection to the organization is specific to his diocese, he said, not beyond. Rather than "Change the Church," he said, "it should be, 'We'd like to probe the teaching more deeply.'"

Krueger insists that the crisis itself—not the victims and their supporters or the media—has been tearing the Church apart. "In order to get past this crisis," he says, "there has to be healing. And as long as there is no healing, there will be an open wound. In order for there to be healing, there needs to be reconciliation; in order for there to be reconciliation, there needs to be truth. If we take a look around the Catholic Church and say, 'Who in the Church is acknowledging that this has to take place?' we find that the bishops are in a position, that, for whatever reason, they want to keep the truth behind chancery walls."

He concludes that some bishops have banned VOTF out of fear. First of all, seeing laypeople come together in a new way signals change. "Everyone is afraid of change," says Krueger. "We're asking for things like accountability and transparency. It's reasonable to assume that this could change the order of a bishop's life." Some bishops, particularly in the Northeast, he says, "were not able to view us in the truth of who we are. We were banned before they even met with us!"

Krueger differentiates VOTF from groups like Call to Action. VOTF carefully avoids doctrinal issues, like women's ordination. Krueger says, "We're a centrist organization, doing our work within the teachings of the Church." He prefers to think of VOTF as more analogous to the Knights of Columbus: "We're a spiritually based organization. Essentially, we're asking Catholics to stand up and accept more responsibility for the problem."

Although VOTF calls for "structural change" in its goals, there are no sweeping recommendations. The group, rather, is depending upon its members to come up with solutions as they pay more attention to how things are run in the Church. One idea being discussed is that bishops, within their rights of local governance, could establish an election process for diocesan finance councils.

Stronger financial accountability is certainly a key goal of VOTF, especially in the Boston Archdiocese, which is teetering financially. VOTF helped set up a fund through the Maryland-based National Catholic Community Foundation to allow people to donate to local Catholic ministries without risking the funds going to legal settlements. Cardinal Law refused the money, $56,000 last year, so it was donated to Catholic Charities.

Law's interim replacement, Bishop Richard G. Lennon, refused $49,000 again this March for all diocesan programs, including Catholic Charities, which accepted the money anyway. Lennon's spokesperson told the Boston Globe that the bishop believes, "You cannot separate the charitable works of the Church from the office of the bishop."

Krueger sums up his organization's dilemma: "The bishops view this problem as, 'How do we get the laity to trust us again?' And I think we view the problem as, 'How do we get the bishops to trust us for the first time!' Unfortunately, in order for us to get that relationship to work, we're the ones who are going to have to do all of the heavy lifting."

To help keep the organization on firm ground, VOTF has retained the legal services of Ladislas Orsy, S.J., a visiting law professor at Georgetown University and professor emeritus of canon law at The Catholic University of America. Orsy told St. Anthony Messenger that much of the rhetoric of the earliest days of VOTF should be taken with appreciation for the shock and pain its members were experiencing. They certainly have evolved since then, he observes.

As the group's attorney and canonist, he studied all of the correspondence between VOTF and bishops to date. He says, "I'm sorry to say that there is no evidence that those who accused them really inquired into the meaning of what the group is saying. This banning of the group from meeting on Church property without due process and examination, and refusing to talk with them, as some bishops have, is contrary to our American tradition, the gospel, contrary to Vatican II, which calls for dialogue."

Orsy considers VOTF to be a Catholic organization, "but they need help, like any Catholic organization. That is the duty of the shepherd."

It would only be fair to observe that, in many cases, Voice of the Faithful has not observed the protocol that Catholic organizations typically follow when establishing themselves in a diocese—getting a bishop's endorsement before organizing in parishes, for example. As Presentation Sister Antonio Heaphy, director of pastoral ministry and evangelization for the Archdiocese of San Francisco, told this writer, "If they want to be successful, they have to connect with the diocese. I don't think they're subversive, but they give that impression."

The easy flow of Internet communication surely has contributed to a grassroots phenomenon, whereby groups form quickly without the awareness of Church officials.

Some note, too, that VOTF doesn't represent all laity. Gen-X researcher and author Tom Beaudoin observes that VOTF is "failing to find traction with those younger than the '60s generation." And there are lay Catholics who are offended at any group that would question the hierarchy.

Standing With Survivors

VOTF's first goal, supporting survivors, will always be important, says Steve Krueger, and will likely continue to help set the group's course in Boston and beyond.

On a recent Sunday in Providence, Rhode Island, a group of about 30 survivors held a news conference in front of the Cathedral of Ss. Peter and Paul, their weekly vigil seeking to build pressure for the diocese to make public the files of accusations against clergy. There were representatives of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), The Linkup and Survivors First, all of whom have been pressuring bishops everywhere.

On this bright morning the group marched from the cathedral to the attorney general's office, carrying banners, a cross listing abuser clergy and posters of themselves as children at the time of their abuse.

Suzy Nauman was there, on the sidelines, in solidarity, along with fellow parishioner Marge Bean. It was about an hour's drive from their homes. The survivors eventually ended up in front of St. Francis Chapel, where they shouted loudly, "Stop corrupt bishops!" until Father Michael Joyce, O.F.M., ultimately came out and began asking questions. When he heard that these were survivors of abuse, he apologized to them on behalf of the Church.

Immediately, the angry tone of the group changed. The marchers persuaded him to join them as they headed the few blocks back to the cathedral. Father Mike carried a survivor's poster as a show of goodwill, talking in turn to each of the marchers along the way. By the end the most outspoken of the survivors, Phil DeAlbuquerque, was being videotaped shaking hands with Father Michael, saying, "I want to thank Father Mike for coming and walking with us."

Across the United States, in Los Angeles, Mary Grant speaks gratefully of the role that the newly formed Voice of the Faithful affiliates are playing in her area, too. Mary is the Southern California regional director of SNAP, whose national membership stands at about 4,500. She stood outside the Anaheim Convention Center, where 30,000 religious educators were convening last February for the annual Los Angeles Archdiocese Religious Education Congress. Mary Jane McGraw, newly appointed regional coordinator for Voice of the Faithful, joined her.

"I think it's been healing for some survivors of clergy sexual abuse to see finally, after all these years, a Catholic get angry about this, a Catholic to want to expose it, to want to root out the evil in the Church." Grant, herself a survivor of clergy sexual abuse, has been speaking out since 1991 and says this year is the first that she's heard from any Catholics who are willing to stand up and do something. "It would have been nice if they would have been here 12 years ago, but we understand the denial that's been in the Church, along with the lies and deception."

It's very encouraging to the victims, she says, to know that some of the parishioners are finally getting it.

Three thousand miles away, back in Boston, Mary Ann Keyes reflects on what it will take to build this movement of solidarity and reform: "We're going to be successful one person at a time, one parish at a time." Her goal, by the way, is no less lofty than an affiliate in every U.S. parish, and in parishes worldwide after that.

 

      Voice of the Faithful
Mission Statement

To provide a prayerful voice,
attentive to the Spirit,
through which the Faithful
can actively participate in
the governance and
guidance of the
Catholic Church.

-www.votf.org

 

John Bookser Feister is an assistant editor of St. Anthony Mesenger and editor of AmericanCatholic.org. He has masters degrees in humanities and theology from Xavier University, Cincinnati.

For up-to-date information on the clergy sex-abuse crisis, visit our online feature "Clergy Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church."


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