Conservative Catholics, upset about speakers they deride as "ex-priests, apostates and schismatics," said Wednesday they plan to picket a religious education congress that is expected to draw 20,000 Catholic educators to the Anaheim Convention Center this weekend.
Controversy over the annual conference, which begins with a youth day celebration today and continues through Sunday, erupted earlier this month with demands for the resignation of the conference coordinator and a leading nun in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which sponsors the meeting.
"The appalling thing is that this congress consists of people who teach religion and the speakers who will address them do not adhere to church doctrine," said Adria Laubacher, a spokeswoman for the California Coalition of Concerned Catholics, based in Camarillo. "It's a whole horrible parade of dissenters."
Bill Rivera, a spokesman for the Los Angeles archdiocese, said the protesters belong to several small groups of conservative Catholics and do not speak for the majority of church members in Southern California.
"The church is very diverse these days, with a wide variety of people and views," Rivera said. "This group of very conservative, traditional Catholics has objected to some of the changes that have taken place in the church in recent years and has become increasingly outspoken."
The critics, a small coalition of uncertain membership that includes a Tustin-based group, Catholics United for the Splendor of Truth, said they object to a number of the speakers because they have expressed views that include abortion rights, support for the ordination of women priests and New Age spirituality.
Cardinal Roger M. Mahony announced two weeks ago that he had revoked an invitation to Daniel Maguire, a former priest and abortion-rights advocate who had been scheduled to speak at the meeting, the nation's largest Catholic religious education conference.
Also dropped from the program was Father John R. Aurelio, a Buffalo, N.Y., priest who was placed on leave by his bishop in December after allegations surfaced that he had molested two boys 15 to 20 years earlier.
Aurelio has not been charged, and the statute of limitations for any alleged crime has expired. Officials at the Buffalo diocese could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Rivera confirmed Wednesday that Aurelio was no longer on the conference program but said he did not know the reason for the change.
According to a statement released by his office, Mahony also has taken the unusual step of writing to all speakers to request that they adhere to Catholic teachings in their conference presentations.
In the statement, Mahony said he shared concerns about the orthodoxy of what he called "a very small number" of the invited speakers. The congress, he wrote, has simply grown so rapidly in recent years that his staff has been unable to complete background checks of the speakers or adequately research their writings before issuing invitations.
The cardinal said he has instituted a new system that will allow the backgrounds of speakers for future congresses to be reviewed more thoroughly.
Meanwhile, however, anger over the current conference continues. Thirty to 40 protesters demonstrated outside Mahony's Los Angeles chancery Tuesday and announced plans to picket the Anaheim conference every day except today, when 9,000 high school students are scheduled to attend workshops, masses and musical performances.
"We chose not to picket (today) because the kids are confused enough these days as it is," explained a spokesman for Catholics United for the Splendor of Truth, a loose-knit group of conservative Catholics.
The activist, who asked not to be named because he said he feared reprisal from the Catholic hierarchy, said the group is part of an evolving coalition of anti-abortion and traditional Catholic organizations in Orange County that has formed in response to what it contends is the growing influence of unorthodox teaching in the church in Southern California.
Among the coalition's demands are that Mahony cancel invitations to all speakers who have established what Laubacher called "a paper trail of dissent to the teachings" of Pope John Paul II.
Her organization, which took part in the protest at the Los Angeles chancery, has also charged that the Los Angeles Archdiocese's Office of Religious Education, which planned the conference, is "in the hands of dissenters." They have called for the resignations of Sister Edith Prendergast, the director of religious education, and conference coordinator Adrian Whitaker.
While the diocese office occasionally draws picketers from a variety of causes, Rivera said he could recall only one previous protest at the conference, which has been held in Anaheim for about 20 years.
Donna Steichen, a conservative Catholic author and activist, said Wednesday that she sees the protests as part of a growing division in the church between progressives and traditionalists.
"It's true that the Catholic bureaucracy is riddled with dissent and has been for a generation," said Steichen, who is planning to cover the conference as a free-lance writer. "What I find quite exciting is that people are finally starting to object to the influence of these dissenters."
Steichen and others this week dismissed Mahony's statement that he has sent letters to all speakers insisting that their presentations be "in full harmony with the church's teachings."
Mahony also has telephoned another speaker, Father Michael Crosby of Milwaukee, seeking similar assurances that Crosby will adhere to church doctrine in his remarks at the conference, Rivera said. An article in the Wanderer, a national Catholic weekly newspaper, recently accused Crosby of comparing the Catholic hierarchy to the abusive parent in a dysfunctional family.
"Mahony's office has made such a big deal of the fact that he has asked them all only to speak on orthodox subjects," said the spokesman for Catholics United. "But even if they got up and spoke about Donald Duck, they shouldn't be allowed to speak to an orthodox Catholic conference."
He and others said the flash point for their protests was the announcement that Maguire--a Marquette University professor who is a vocal advocate of abortion rights--had been invited to speak at the conference.
But Laubacher said she found it dismaying that the congress would still include speakers whose views challenged the church's traditional teachings, especially in light of last year's papal encyclical "Veritatis Splendor," in which the Pope called on bishops to uphold orthodox Catholicism.
While the Pope "uses as his sources St. Matthew, St. Paul, St. Augustine," she said, "in this archdiocese, we use ex-priests, apostates and schismatics. The faithful deserve better."