Outraged Catholic laity urges accountability from the pulpit

From the lawsuits that forced the most damaging revelations of sexual abuse in Boston, to an Irish Catholic judge who made them public, to the uprisings of laity and priests demanding his resignation, the forces that finally brought down Cardinal Bernard F. Law were quintessentially American.

For a church whose members for generations were expected to docilely "pay, pray and obey," the sexual abuse crisis has outraged and energized a Catholic laity who are demanding accountability from their leaders. And perhaps most significant, it has spurred normally loyal priests, who are bound by promises of obedience, to speak out against bishops who they feel have shirked responsibility.

Law's resignation, which was accepted Friday by Pope John Paul II, "was brought about by the consistent pressure from the ordinary people of the church," said Paul F. Lakeland, whose book, The Liberation of the Laity: In Search of an Accountable Church, will be published next year. "This is a victory for nobody but an opportunity for the church to think again about how it chooses its leaders."

Conor O'Clery, a reporter for The Irish Times covering Law's resignation in Boston, was fascinated by the uprising there.

"It's getting more militant by the minute," O'Clery said last week shortly before Law's resignation was announced.

"Here you have priests in open rebellion, you have lay people in open rebellion. You don't have that in Ireland," O'Clery said. "You'd never question a priest, much less a bishop, much less a cardinal. The higher the ranking, the closer to God."

The first revelations in January were prompted by an Irish Catholic judge, Constance M. Sweeney. She overruled a previous judge and ordered the release of 10,000 pages of secret church documents after accusing the archdiocese of dragging its feet in providing information about an abusing priest. In so doing, she bucked a decades-long tradition of Boston judges who didn't dare challenge the powerful Catholic Church.

Those revelations prompted a group of lay Catholics in Wellesley, a suburb of Boston, to form Voice of the Faithful. They intended it to be a moderate voice to demand accountability from the church. It grew rapidly through word of mouth and the Internet from the 25 people who gathered that evening in January to 25,000 members in more than 40 states.

"We're mostly middle-aged, middle-class, middle-America, family-values people. These are not radical people," said Jim Post, president of Voice of the Faithful.

'Bring in the laity'

But Post also sees his group as an embodiment of the greater lay involvement in the church called for in the Second Vatican Council, which modernized church practice in the mid-1960s.

"In our minds, it is absolutely essential that the church bring in the laity," Post said. "Here, I think something much more than a pebble has been dropped in the pond. The Japanese have a word -- tsunami."

But what may have been even more damaging for Law were the 58 priests who signed a letter last week calling on him to resign. There were indications that many more priests shared the sentiment and were looking for an opportunity to express it.

"The most significant thing in this whole story is the fact that a significant number of priests in Boston publicly called for Cardinal Law's resignation, that it became public that the cardinal had lost the support of his priests," said the Rev. Richard P. McBrien, a theology professor at the University of Notre Dame. "When the priests went public with the call for resignation, I knew then it was a matter of days, weeks or months at most."

Different from the start

The democratic impulse and calls for accountability may not have been witnessed much in the church's recent past, but they have a long tradition in American Catholic history, dating to its first bishop.

John Carroll, the first bishop of Baltimore, which was the first diocese established in the country, was elected to his episcopal office in 1789 by his fellow priests.

"Rome allowed them to elect their bishop because they asked if that could be done," said Brother Thomas W. Spalding, author of The Premier See: A History of the Archdiocese Of Baltimore, 1789-1994.

That practice was to have stopped with Carroll, but he supported the election of bishops and allowed his successor to be selected by the priests, a fact he neglected to mention in his correspondence with Rome. The fact that Carroll was not fond of the man chosen was strong evidence of an election, Spalding said. "He said [to the Vatican] that he consulted his priests, but it was obvious it was the result of an election, because Carroll himself would never have chosen [Leonard] Neale as his successor."

The democratic tradition also surfaced in the late 18th and early 19th centuries when most parishes were controlled by elected lay trustees, who owned the land and the church buildings and often determined the priest's salary and supervised his work.

Conservative forces

But there was also a conservative force at work within the American church that looked at the institution more as a monarchy than a democracy. That faction prevailed at the 1st Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1829, when the American bishops decided that ownership of church property should be transferred to them instead of the trustees, weakening their power.

Jay Dolan, a history professor emeritus at the University of Notre Dame, notes that the desire for lay control of the church didn't die. As immigrants came to the United States they typically banded together and formed a mutual protection society that would buy land, build a church and then ask a bishop to send a priest. Inevitably, the bishop would agree only if the society handed over the deed to the church.

"They would fight like hell," Dolan said. "And usually the bishop won."

The one exception to that led to the first major schism in the American Catholic Church. In 1904, a group of Polish parishes that refused to cede control to local bishops formed the Polish National Catholic Church.

'Very well educated'

But the norm in the American Catholic Church was to follow the rigidly hierarchical model of church governance favored by the Vatican. That model was challenged at Vatican II, when the world's bishops called for a greater role for lay people in church life. It is that vision that groups such as Voice of the Faithful say they are trying to embody.

The question is whether the success of protests in Boston, and of other groups that pressured the U.S. bishops to squarely face the sexual abuse crisis, will lead to greater openness in the church.

"One thing that's clear to me is the American Catholic laity is very well educated," Dolan said. "Many of them went to Catholic schools and got a good education. They want accountability.

"They have accountability in every other aspect of their lives, in their families, in their workplace," he said. "And they expect it in the church."