St. John Chrysostom once warned: Whoever is not angry when there is cause for anger sins. The 25 Catholics who gathered in the basement of St. John the Evangelist Church in Wellesley, Mass., on a Monday night in January 2002 were angry indeedangry and embarrassed because of the sexual abuse of so many children by priest-predators in their own archdiocese, but angry especially because incidents of abuse had been kept secret by archdiocesan leaders for whom concealment appeared to be the number one priority, while known predators were transferred from parish to unsuspecting parish. Any financial settlements with victims were made in secret and were often contingent upon maintaining secrecy. The scandal and its extent were documented in The Boston Globe, and soon all were reminded that clergy sexual abuse had infected the church in many dioceses in the United States and in many nations.
By spring, crowds had swelled to 700. In July 2002, a convention of this newly formed group, called Voice of the Faithful, drew over 4,000 participants. Today the membership of Voice of the Faithful numbers over 33,000 Catholics in 40 states and 21 countries, largely through 200 parish affiliates. V.O.T.F. has defined its mission: 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. Its goals remain: to support those who have been abused, to support the vast numbers of fine priests of integrity who were devastated by the crisis and to shape structural change within the church. This third goal, structural change, has raised eyebrows, caused understandable concern among some leaders and allowed the dismissal and banning of V.O.T.F. by those for whom change, in reference to church structure, appears intrinsically subversive.
There are those who say that the laity should have no role in church governance, since it is the function of the bishop to teach, govern and sanctify. Such a view is not supported by Canon Law. Canon 212, for example, states: In accord with the knowledge, competence, and preeminence which they possess, [lay people] have the right and even at times a duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the church, and they have a right to make their opinion known to the other Christian faithful. Again in Canon 129: Lay members of the Christian faithful can cooperate in the exercise of this power [of governance] in accord with the norm of law. The documents of the Second Vatican Council call for active lay participation in church affairs. From the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church: The sacred pastors should recognize the dignity and responsibility of the laity in the church. They should willingly use their prudent advice and confidently assign offices to them in service of the church, leaving them freedom and scope for activity (No. 37). From the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity: While preserving intact the necessary link with ecclesiastical authority, the laity have the right to establish and direct [apostolic] associations and to join existing ones (No. 19). V.O.T.F. seeks a link with authority in every diocese for respectful dialogue, but it will not negotiate its right to exist as an association of faithful Catholic lay men and women.
Suspicion of motives, misinterpretation and misinformation about V.O.T.F. are rampant. It is accused of doctrinal heresy, seeking to establish parallel church structures, anti-episcopal bias, and alignment and identification with anti-church victims-rights groups.
The recent crisis arising from sexual abuse by members of the clergy has impaired the teaching authority of the hierarchy and has demonstrated that the present system of church governance is seriously flawed. While the vast majority of bishops and priests are able, sincere, holy and truly dedicated to Christ and his church, some bishops, by what they have done and what they have failed to do, have enabled and facilitated multiple child rape. Saying this is not a sign of anti-episcopal bias. It is a fact that has been demonstrated many times and in many places. Although priest-predators have been properly and appropriately removed from ministry, and many have been charged, tried and convicted of crimes, those bishops who failed in their basic responsibility to protect our children have not been charged, condemned, censured or even criticized by higher authority. There are no structures of accountability for them.
Fellow bishops, many of whom have publicly apologized to victims and are complying with the provisions of the Dallas charter, have nevertheless remained silent. Cardinal Francis George, on the eve of the bishops’ meeting in Washington, D.C., said, There have to be sanctions for a bishop who has been negligent the same as there are sanctions for a priest. The bishops, however, were asked only to commit themselves to fraternal support, fraternal challenge, and fraternal correction. In the words of the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus: pretty limp. In fact, the only time in memory when a bishop has been publicly criticized by other bishops was when Cardinal Joseph Bernardin made his doctrinally sound case for the Common Ground Initiative in the document Called to Be Catholic, in 1996. He was publicly criticized by Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, and later, somewhat less vehemently, by Cardinals James Hickey of Washington, D.C., Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia and Adam Maida of Detroit.
V.O.T.F. believes that now, more than ever, dialogue is needed among bishops, theologians, priests and lay people. Reconciliation is a mark of Christ’s presence among us. The American laity, better educated and informed than ever before, actively involved and in love with the church, want and need to be involved in its healing and continuing reform. The bishops need the meaningful involvement of lay organizations if their credibility is to be restored.
Clearly there is no dogma, doctrine or canon law that prohibits collaboration by a bishop or pastor with the laity in the exercise of his administrative authority. If members of the hierarchy are in fact the servants of the servants of God, there are no grounds for secrecy and no justification for excluding those being served from having a say in how they are served, and from some voice in their governance. There is no logic in excluding from consultation the very people the bishops are commissioned to serve. Such exclusion is analogous to a physician’s not asking a patient to talk about symptoms.
A major part of the structural change envisioned by V.O.T.F. is the establishment and empowerment of elected, representative pastoral councils on the parish and diocesan levels, which would have not merely an advisory but also a significant legislative function, analogous to the way our national government is structured. V.O.T.F. wants organized participation by clergy and laity in the selection of pastors and bishops, and in exercising oversight and independent auditing of parish and diocesan finances to ensure openness and transparency. There is nothing in principle that would prohibit lay participation in councils and congregations even at the highest levels of governance in the church.
The current crisis has magnified the realization that the laity are absolutely powerless in the government of their church. There is a total lack of institutional checks and balances that would allow them some say about how authority is exercised. Against the protest that the church is not a democracy runs the growing consensus and underlying conviction that a dose of democracy is precisely what the church needs in the present crisis.
V.O.T.F. supports survivors of abuse by listening to their stories, by lobbying for their medical needs and appropriate treatment of their post-traumatic stress disorders and by advocating just compensation for their life-changing trauma. We seek criminal prosecution of abusers. Although V.O.T.F. endorses some of the goals and practices of victims-rights organizations, and has met with and collaborated with them in some instances, we are identified and/or affiliated with none of these groups. Many of their members have understandably left the church and are not interested in its future or its viability. We reach out to these and seek their healing and return to the ranks of the faithful.
V.O.T.F. especially supports the overwhelming majority of our priests, who live with integrity the promises and vows that come with ordination, who seek integrity in their personal lives of prayer, in their daily ministry, in the simplicity of their lifestyle, in their preaching of the word and in their celebration of the liturgy. We support them with expressions of encouragement and gratitude, and most of all by our active participation in the life of the parish through gifts of time, talent and treasure. We seek justice and due process for anyone accused, and we pray for all priests and pledge to support them in their ministry.
Despite repeated assertions to the contrary, V.O.T.F. has no other agenda than the one above and posted for all to see on its Web site, www.votf.org. We refuse to address theological controversies or to take a position on divisive issues. We do not contest any church teaching. We accept the teaching authority of the magisterium. Our membership is scattered across the spectrum of Catholic thought, but we are united in our stated goals. We seek to build up the kingdom of God, not to tear it down. We recognize that structural change takes time and does not happen in a moment. V.O.T.F. members pray daily for the church, its bishops and priests, and for the laity that we might come together in love, for respectful dialogue, always keeping Christ at the center of our efforts.