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Thursday, 13 June, 2002, 11:54 GMT 12:54 UK
US Catholics demand greater church role
A protester calls for women priests
Some Catholics are pushing for women to be ordained

America's Roman Catholic bishops are holding their annual conference in Dallas at a time of unprecedented crisis for the Catholic Church in the United States.

But despite the revelations over the past few months of sex scandals involving priests, America's Catholics are not deserting their church.

We will break from Rome if Rome does not see the light

Anne Barrett Doyle, Coalition of Concerned Catholics
At St Mary's in Boston, the city where the crisis began, the Sunday evening mass for youngsters is as well-attended as ever.

Rory Flynn is among the teen worshippers. He told me that Catholics should hold onto their faith despite what has happened.

"You can't lose your faith, because your faith is not in the priest, it's in Jesus who died on the cross for us," he says.

Zero tolerance

"As disgusting as it was - I prayed for the families - you can't lose your faith."

But many Catholics have lost their faith in the men who rule their church. With a mix of humour and anger, scores of protesters continue to picket Boston Cathedral every Sunday.

Among the regulars is Anne Barrett Doyle, founder of the Coalition of Concerned Catholics. She is demanding a policy of zero tolerance from the church towards abusive priests and has a stern warning if her demands are ignored.

Pope Jean Paul
Some are threatening to break with Rome

"There is a lot of talk among very sensible conservative people like myself about forming an American Catholic Church," she says. "We will break from Rome if Rome does not see the light, if Rome continues to defend priests rather than defend victims."

But most Catholics want to reform their church, not leave it. Leading this mini-reformation is a grassroots organisation called Voice of the Faithful, which has swelled to over 10,000 strong in the few months since the crisis began.

The group is pretty conservative - most members are pressing merely for a greater say by ordinary Catholics in the way the church is run.

But some, like Jan Leary, are more radical.

"If we had married priests in place, especially women priests, and women who were mothers and grandmothers, this would have stopped the issue of any kind of hurt for children," she says.

Potential for change

Out in the parishes, reform-minded priests like Father Walter Cuenin of Boston's Our Lady of Christians church worry that without change, the Catholic Church could lose its central role in the community.

"We have a very vibrant Catholic Church. I would hate to see that lost," he says.

He says one of the ways to make sure that it does not get lost is to create mechanisms so that people feel and do have a greater voice in the life of the church.

"Take the issue of selection of bishops, for example. There needs to be some way in which the priests, as well as lay people, have a voice in that process," he says.

"Now, it's just an old-boy network through Rome."

But in a sign of the times, even Boston College, a former bastion of Catholic orthodoxy, is planning seminars on Church reform.

Academics there, like Professor Tom O'Connor, are hopeful that all the pain of the sex scandals may not have been in vain.

"One of the progressive features to come out of this is suddenly, the Catholic Church is important," Mr O'Connor says.

"People who perhaps once assumed elements of their faith in a sort of off-hand manner are now being forced back into asking themselves the question, 'Well what is it that I do believe?'

"These things mean that there is a vitality there, and that kind of vitality means that there is potential for change and progressive reform."

Certainly, this week's meeting of US bishops is expected to issue tough new guidelines on abusive priests, as church spokesman Father William Maistry explains.

"I think the majority of bishops are in favour of zero tolerance - that is, one offence, one abuse of a minor, past or present and the priest can no longer function as a priest," he says.

No matter how tough the bishops get on sex abuse, their conference will not be enough to restore the trust that has been broken between America's Catholics and their clergy. That, the Church here acknowledges, will take more than two days of apologies and debate in Dallas.

The Church has been rocked by recent abuse revelations

Boston cardinal quits

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12 Jun 02 | Americas
23 Apr 02 | Europe
22 Apr 02 | Europe
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