Twenty dollars got you in the door for a day-long conference on reforming a Catholic Church hobbled by its sex-abuse crisis. Five months ago, Voice of the Faithful (VOTF) met for the first time in a church basement in a Boston suburb. On July 20, forty-two hundred Catholics showed up at Boston’s Hynes Convention Center for VOTF’s first convention. After months of shocking news of clergy sex abuse, this crowd of mostly white, late-middle-aged suburban lay Catholics was visibly excited to be doing something positive. By day’s end, that excitement would be tempered by a strenuous challenge to VOTF’s agenda issued by victims of clergy sexual abuse.

Four thousand-plus people gathered to talk about what they could do to help govern the church. The professionalism of the video presentations, lighting, and sound was impressive. Vigorous applause punctuated many of the addresses from a distinguished roster of speakers. The auditorium took on the air of a national political convention when VOTF steering committee member Paul Baier read off the most-represented parishes and states. (Of the forty-two hundred participants, 623 hailed from outside Massachusetts. Thirty-five states were represented, along with seven countries.) This wasn’t just a meeting; it was a movement.

But movements must be defined, and VOTF has a number of hurdles to jump if it is to succeed in 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" (see In order to achieve that, the group has identified three goals for itself: "1. Support those who have been abused. 2. Support priests of integrity. 3. Shape structural change within church."

Those goals made up the day’s agenda. The proceedings began and ended with presentations from members of Survivors Network of the Abused by Priests (SNAP). Mid-morning brought the first Priest of Integrity Award to Reverend Thomas Doyle, O.P., who was one of three authors of a 1985 report on the problem of clergy sexual abuse that was circulated confidentially among U.S. Catholic bishops. Just before lunch, goal three was discussed: the amorphous "structural change" issue. A five-person panel went to work on the big questions. Sensus fidelium—the sense of the faithful. "It is time no longer to give sheep as the primary image of the laity in the Catholic Church," said Boston College theologian Stephen Pope.

There were practical offerings, too: the Voice of Compassion Boston Fund is an alternative vehicle for Boston-area Catholics to give to local Catholic charities. Their "dilemma of conscience" has reduced pledges to the Cardinal’s Appeal from last June’s $7.5 million to this June’s $4.3 million. The Voice of Compassion fund has thus far collected $10,000, which it was going to turn over to the Archdiocese of Boston through a nonprofit intermediary—though it would not pay diocesan "administrative" costs. (Two days later, on July 22, archdiocesan spokeswoman Donna Morrissey announced that Cardinal Bernard Law would not accept the donation "because it undercuts [the archdiocese’s] customary means of financial support," and does not "recognize the role of the archbishop and his responsibility in providing for the various programs and activities of the church.") VOTF also unveiled a report card designed to evaluate a bishop’s compliance with the Charter for the Protection of Young People adopted by the bishops’ conference on June 14. It is an instrument that could help parishes and lay people assess whether their diocese is abiding by the rules the bishops adopted. And there is another practical goal: to put a chapter of VOTF in every U.S. parish. A seventeen-page "Parish Voice Starter Kit" can be found on the Web site. It includes a how-to guide, complete with a sample prayer, agenda, and action plan-and words urging measure and caution in proceeding.

Voice sees itself as a centrist association. The founding members recognized that the outrage ignited by the sex-abuse crisis cut across the usual conservative/liberal divide, and organized the group around that fact. According to Paul Baier, two-thirds of VOTF’s time in securing conference speakers was spent trying to line up conservatives. Bridging that divide is still a work in progress. As the Reverend William Kremmel began the closing Mass, he said that he was honored to have been invited, but that he hoped one day we’d see a married woman doing the same thing. The congregation laughed in agreement. It was a liberal house.

VOTF leadership needs to navigate carefully if it wants to avoid the fate of other reform groups, dismissed as fringe liberals and marginalized within the church. If Voice of the Faithful wants improved lay participation in church governance, it will have to reach out more vigorously to conservatives and it will have to be able to speak to and work with bishops. Not to mention the young and minorities. Voice of the Faithful may have legs, but they aren’t youthful ones.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle Voice faces in the long run is its promise to "support those who have been abused." This will be difficult if those who have been abused aren’t interested in supporting VOTF. Susan Renahan, a member of SNAP, closed the first morning session with an impassioned address, declaring, "We do not need your voice. You need ours....We don’t want your voice unless you can express your rage." Her own rage was barely concealed, and it felt like it was directed at the audience. At the final session of the day, four SNAP members spoke. Three of the presentations were moving, honest, and brief. The fourth was something else. Arthur Austin, introduced as a "poet and a prophet," explained why SNAP members were protesting outside the convention center. They picketed, he said, because they considered the VOTF meeting "too little, too late, and too much about you." "You have no right," he went on, "to judge them...or feel Catholically smug....All you get is the right to beg their forgiveness."

This did not go over well with an audience sympathetic to the victims of sexual abuse and outraged over the treatment they have received. Austin’s speech was, in effect, an indictment of the VOTF project itself: multitudes gathered, he said disdainfully, "to honor your highly strategized, thoroughly debated, very quiet agenda." If members of SNAP (or other victims’ groups) insist on scolding an audience full of supporters, Voice of the Faithful’s days could be numbered. Some SNAP members seemed bent on needlessly shaming people, overlooking the fact that their own views of church reform can be quite narrow. SNAP is composed of many justifiably disaffected Catholics. But however justified that estrangement is, this makes their relationship to and knowledge of the church limited and dated. Austin’s disturbing suggestion that only those "who know what it means to suffer" (namely, SNAP members) can make claims about what the church needs is a recipe for futility.

Quo vadis? Austin finally asked his audience. A good question, and one that Voice of the Faithful must work hard to answer. Yet, so long as its leadership can stay its center course, avoid the Gnosticism of a sufferers-only club, broaden its membership base, connect with young and nonwhite Catholics, and actually work out practical measures "to shape structural change within the church," this fledgling movement might have a chance.


Related: VOTF Watch, by Grant Gallicho
Are the Bishops Listening? An interview with VOTF co-founder James E. Post
Shared Burden: A Manifesto for the Laity by David O'Brien & Bill Casey

Published in the 2002-08-16 issue: View Contents

Grant Gallicho joined Commonweal as an intern and was an associate editor for the magazine until 2015. 

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