Five-Year Growing Pains: As Outrage Fades, Voice of Faithful Looks to Sustain Reform Mission

Article excerpt

Voice of the Faithful, the lay reform organization founded as a response to the clergy sex abuse crisis in the Catholic church, faces significant questions about its identity and mission as it observes its fifth anniversary.

A centrist organization that has attempted to avoid some of the longstanding contentious issues in the church, it nevertheless has stirred considerable controversy in some circles by raising questions about authority, accountability of bishops and the best way to handle the sex abuse crisis.

The organization was to hold its national convention Oct. 19 and 20 in Providence, R.I.

As the organization looks to the future, it faces questions about how much influence it can have in an institution where laity, especially women, have no place at the top decision-making levels. Beyond the initial flush of anger and outrage at the sex abuse crisis, some wonder how the organization will sustain interest in reform and advocating for victims, and what kind of reform it will want to pursue.

William D'Antonio, who will speak about research findings from his study of the organization, offered an assessment. "The national membership doesn't challenge the leadership to challenge the bishops," he said during a recent telephone interview, adding, "Some affiliates have done this, but there has been no cohesive demand."

While acknowledging that point, Mary Pat Fox, president the organization, said one of her goals is to "move the organization from an anger to love mode."

"Could we challenge the bishops more? Absolutely," she said over the telephone. "But we can't let that stand in the way of having impact."

Delaware's new law

She argues that the organization has had an effect outside the church structure, pointing to recent legislative reform passed in Delaware where the Child Victims Act, which became law in July, opened up a two-year window to file suits and abolished the statute of limitations in civil cases. "We played a role there," said Fox, and in other states, including Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Ohio, all of which have passed legislation in recent years extending the statute of limitations regarding sexual abuse.

Some have called Delaware's legislation "the strongest bill for child abuse victims in the country," since it holds liable not only perpetrators, but also organizations that allowed abuse to occur through gross negligence.

David Clohessy, national director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, agreed that organizational muscle flexing has helped in various state legislatures. Yet where Voice of the Faithful adds the "punch," he said, "is reminding everyone that the hierarchy is not the church, and the laity are not sheep. In the face of unspeakable horror, the easiest thing to do would have been to deny it or give up. They chose neither course."

Nonetheless, some tensions have surfaced between survivors and the organization. A survivors' advocate and founder of the Maine chapter, for example, has pressed national leadership to disinvite a convention presenter for his refusal to step down from a trustee position at Jesuit-run Cheverus High School in Portland, Maine. Paul Kendrick, an alumnus, has asked Jesuit Fr. William A. Clark to resign or advocate for "justice and restitution" for 10 victims who allege they were abused by priests and a lay teacher at the school.

Fox declined to comment on the matter. Clark, who was not affiliated with Cheverus during the period the alleged abuse occurred, was scheduled to lead a Saturday afternoon workshop.

No survivor was a featured speaker at the convention, a departure from the group's first convention in Boston, although a special last-minute addition to the program focused entirely on survivors' perspectives, offering suggestions for advocacy and action.

While a major goal of Voice of the Faithful--changing church structures to force greater accountability--remains out of reach, the group claims success in the less measurable area of raising the conscious ness of Catholics. …