Priests forum struggles to redefine itself after scandal

A  division in the Boston Archdiocese that made it difficult for the forum to move ahead.

By Jay Lindsay, Associated Press Writer, 1/24/2004


BOSTON -- A pioneering group that gained prominence during the sex abuse crisis as a voice for long-silent clergy is struggling to define its purpose, even as some priests criticize it as divisive and barely functioning.


The Boston Priests' Forum got its start as a place for clergy to socialize and support each other and soon found itself rallying around a single issue -- concern about the handling of the church abuse scandal by Cardinal Bernard Law.


Now, a year since Law resigned, the forum finds itself caught between returning to its roots as a fraternal organization or developing the public voice it found during the height of the crisis, said the Rev. Robert Bullock, the group's president.


The forum might best serve priests as an independent voice, but that could also cause major discord, said the Rev. Thomas Mahoney, the group's treasurer.


"That's why this is a difficult crossroads to come to," he said.


The Boston Priests' Forum was founded in 2001 by three priests who began meeting over dinner to discuss theology and chronic problems of the priesthood, such as isolation and overwork.


When the abuse scandal broke in January 2002, group leaders took on a role as a public voice for clerics who saw church leaders as unresponsive to their concerns about false accusations and plummeting morale.


A report by the state attorney general found that about 240 priests in the archdiocese were accused of abuse between 1940 and 2000, and that more than 1,000 children may have been abused by clergy.


The forum grew to about 250 of the 550 active priests in the archdiocese, and now has about 200 members. [  note: 50 are active from Archdiocese of Boston all others are retired or order priests or from outside the Archdiocese of Boston.]


Although forum leaders expressed opinions throughout the crisis, the idea that the group represented a unified voice for clerics was more illusion than fact, Mahoney said.


"People were hoping the forum would become that, but it never really did," he said.


Once Law stepped down in December 2002, the crisis began to cool, along with the motivation of some Priests' Forum members, said the Rev. Walter Woods, a member of its board of directors.


"The momentum is there, but it's not what it was a year-and-a-half ago," Woods said. "We've come up against limits -- limits of time and limits of energy."


The Rev. Paul Berube, a forum member, said the group lost energy after a letter calling for Law's resignation was initiated outside the forum and was signed by 58 priests, including some members of the forum. Berube said the letter was done so quickly that many priests didn't have an opportunity to sign it, including many who would have.


The result was a division in the priesthood that made it difficult for the forum to move ahead.


"You ended up with two groups in the archdiocese," he said. "Nobody knew why people who didn't sign it, didn't sign it."


The group adopted a constitution in 2002, but Bullock said the group was not focused in its early days and never sufficiently defined its ideology. In recent weeks, the forum has drafted a mission statement with Mary Jo Bane, a public policy expert from Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government and Catholic lay leader who was among the first to call for Cardinal Bernard Law to resign as archbishop.


A final mission statement should be approved by the forum by next month, Bullock said.


One priest who is no longer active in the forum said some of his colleagues, particularly younger priests, have been turned off by a perception that the group is dominated by liberals.


"I don't even consider myself that conservative, but, boy, did I feel like it," said the priest, who spoke on condition of anonymity.


Meetings had the feel of a union gathering where employees complained about the boss, he said, and left him feeling disloyal to a cardinal and church hierarchy to whom he'd pledged obedience.


Woods said annual elections give members a chance to change the leadership if they want. He added priests of all views are welcome at the forum, which sporadically meets and hosts speakers, including, in December, Peter Steinfels, author of "A People Adrift: The Crisis in the Roman Catholic Church in America."


A priest still active in the forum, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the group -- far from being too radical -- suffers a lack of vigor.


"It's not doing much of anything," he said. "It's not a voice, it's a whisper."


Meanwhile, Law's successor, Archbishop Sean O'Malley, has proposed changes to an elected body of priests within the archdiocese, called the Presbyteral Council, that his spokesman said may lessen the need for the priests' forum. The Rev. Christopher Coyne said the new council will give priests the kind of voice in the archdiocese they've been seeking through the forum.


"Over time, as the Presbyteral Council becomes reinvigorated and reconstituted, much of what the priests' forum seeks to bring about becomes redundant," Coyne said.


O'Malley wants priests elected to represent geographical areas, rather than choosing candidates from different age groups to function as individual advisers to the archbishop. Coyne said the change better reflects O'Malley's view of his relationship with Boston's priests.


"They are his co-workers in bringing about change in the archdiocese," Coyne said.


The elections are scheduled for next month.


Bullock said O'Malley's changes to the Presbyteral Council won't make the forum unnecessary because the council is an advisory body to the archbishop, while the forum is an "independent and distinctive" support group for priests.


Bullock and other forum leaders met with O'Malley for the first time on Tuesday in what Bullock called a "positive" meeting. Forum leaders emphasized the group was not confrontational, but would act to preserve priests' rights and boost morale, he said.


Coyne said the archdiocese would have no objections if the forum continued as a fraternal organization. Mahoney said until recently he thought the forum should go in that direction.


But priests are facing a new set of tough issues. For instance, O'Malley strongly opposes gay marriage, though other Catholics are less certain. Church closings and parish consolidations O'Malley is set to announce in April are sure to anger parishioners and add turmoil to priests' lives.


With all that's happening, Mahoney said, priests have an acute need for the forum as it was perceived during the crisis -- a group that speaks publicly for weary and embattled clerics.


"There's a need for support and strength among a very fractured and powerless group, which is the priests of this archdiocese," he said.


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