An Interview with VOTF's James E. Post
Are The Bishops Listening?
What has Voice of the Faithful accomplished in its first year?
One of the most interesting and hopeful developments to come out of the Catholic Church’s sexual-abuse crisis is the lay reform group Voice of the Faithful. Founded in February 2002, VOTF has quickly established itself as a lay initiative that must be taken seriously—its 30,000-strong membership spans forty states and twenty-one countries. It’s also been one of the most controversial, garnering praise in some quarters and harsh criticism in others (some bishops have banned the group from meeting in their dioceses)—this despite its self-described centrist philosophy, the goals of which include: (1) to support those who have been abused, (2) to support priests of integrity, and (3) to shape structural change within the church (www.votf.org). As the first anniversary of VOTF’s inaugural international convention approaches, VOTF president and co-founder James E. Post agreed to bring us up-to-date in this interview, which was conducted by e-mail.
Grant Gallicho: It’s been over a year since VOTF formed. What have you accomplished?
James E. Post: I would summarize VOTF’s “year one” accomplishments this way: As individual Catholics, we helped one another find the courage to stand up and say “No! Sexual abuse is not what our church stands for.” We’ve helped lay Catholics find their voice, express their sense of outrage, and challenge those in authority who permitted such depraved behavior to occur. Moreover, the anger has now been transformed and shaped into a commitment to help our church heal through disclosure, truth, and restoration of trust.
We have learned much from the survivors of clergy sexual abuse. We learned about the evil and injustice that touched their lives. We learned to respect them and their stories. Their faces are the “face of Christ.”
Consciousness has been raised, but the systems, structures, and culture that produced this scandal—this evil—have not been reformed yet. Americans like short wars and “quick fixes.” That won’t happen in the Catholic Church. We—along with Kathleen McChesney, head of the new Office of Child and Youth Protection of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), and Governor Frank Keating, chairman of the USCCB’s National Review Board—have seen signs of some bishops digging in, resisting change, and refusing to implement vigorously the bishops’ Charter and Norms.
The recalcitrant bishops and their allies are counting on American Catholics to have a short attention span and to return to apathy. Our job is to prove them wrong and to insist that real reforms take place. We do not underestimate their resistance to change—but they are underestimating our determination. In time, they will be surprised to learn how determined the laity is to rid the church of this evil.
Gallicho: What do you make of bishops who have banned VOTF from meeting on diocesan grounds? How many (and who) have banned VOTF?
Post: Eight bishops have issued orders (edicts or directives) to pastors that VOTF should not meet on church property. Until Brooklyn bishop Thomas Daily reversed his earlier ban, all eight had refused to meet with VOTF leaders, refused to state their case against VOTF, and refused to engage in meaningful discussion of what must be done to restore trust and renew the church. They have accepted hearsay, endorsed scurrilous attacks, and walked away from their responsibilities as pastoral shepherds and teachers. They squandered the moral integrity of church leadership and now they are scrambling to save themselves by demonizing the laity. Their actions are bogus, and persons of good will know it.
The eight bishops and their dioceses are: Thomas Daily, Brooklyn (initially); John DiMarzio, Camden, New Jersey; Joseph Gerry, Portland, Maine; Bernard Law and Richard Lennon, Boston; William Lori, Bridgeport, Connecticut; William Murphy, Rockville Centre, New York; John Myers, Newark, New Jersey; and Robert Vasa, Baker, Oregon.
To clarify: on April 29, Bishop Daily issued a letter to his priests that leaves decisions regarding VOTF’s use of church facilities in the Diocese of Brooklyn up to individual pastors. This is good news and effectively ends the ban in the Diocese of Brooklyn. We are grateful for the decision and for the many hours of work that local VOTF members invested in dialogue with diocesan officials. Bear in mind, however, that the ban should never have been imposed!
VOTF members are faithful, traditional Catholics who are working to heal and renew our church. It is too often overlooked that in the past year, VOTF members have studied the teachings of our church, and invested countless hours in discerning our rights, responsibilities, and obligations to participate in healing the church. We consider this work to be a vital part of our lives as Catholics and of our spiritual journey in Christ. Sadly, in the dioceses ruled by these “banning bishops,” Voice of the Faithful is denied the teaching, guidance, and communion we seek. If we are dissenting from any church teaching or canon law, we have a right to be informed by those who are ordained to the role of servant and authority in the church, and they have a responsibility to engage us in that teaching and learning process.
We therefore have to ask these bishops—over and over until we get answers—did they carry out any investigation of VOTF before issuing their bans? What evidence did they find against VOTF? Did they notify VOTF of their evidence? What was the process by which these bishops banned their own Catholic people from the communion, teaching, and guidance that is owed them—that is owed to every member of the church in the Spirit of Christ?
Gallicho: VOTF’s stated first goal is “to support those who have been abused.” Some people have the sense that the victims are crucial to the “mystique” of VOTF, that “testimony” is the animating force behind many of your meetings. I am thinking of the February meeting of the Linkup, a support group for victims of clergy sexual abuse founded in 1991, reported in the March 7 National Catholic Reporter (Joe Feuerherd, “Victims Vow to Keep Cases in News”). In that story, Feuerherd writes that Paul Baier, a member of VOTF’s steering committee, said at the meeting that he wanted to “crack Los Angeles and greater New York,” explaining “how we get another year” out of media coverage. In the same article, Minnesota attorney Jeffrey Anderson is quoted as saying that since his first sexual-abuse case against the Catholic Church in 1983, “we have been suing the shit out of them.” How can VOTF be affiliated with statements like this and maintain its credibility, especially in meetings with bishops?
Post: I don’t accept that there’s a “VOTF mystique” or a “survivor mystique.” Nonetheless, there is great power in the testimony or witness of survivors. This was indeed an “animating principle” and motivation for many VOTF members to join our movement.
We have some natural affinities with support/interest groups in fulfilling our goals (first, supporting survivors, and second, supporting priests of integrity): Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) and the Linkup support our first goal, and the Boston Priests’ Forum supports our second goal. These relationships are important. SNAP, in particular, is doing holy, Spirit-driven work.
Still, while standing in solidarity with these groups, we acknowledge that we won’t always be comfortable with their activities, nor can we control what their members say. We don’t feel the need or consider it our responsibility to control other groups whose missions we stand in solidarity with.
We all need to remember that the survivors are real people who have been permanently traumatized by what has happened to them. We don’t expect them to express their anger and hurt “politely” in order to spare our sensibilities, or society’s, or the church’s. Knocking people out of their comfort zones (including VOTF’s) is sometimes prophetic and necessary, and we trust that the Holy Spirit is providing some momentum in all this.
Finally, I’d like to point out that VOTF includes all types of people—lawyers who think and talk like lawyers; MDs who think and talk like doctors; social workers who think and talk like social workers; bankers who think and talk like bankers; mothers and fathers who think and talk like parents. We don’t force anyone to think and talk in just one way.
Gallicho: Are you at all worried that VOTF might become too closely allied with other victims’ groups whose goals are very different from yours? What differentiates VOTF from SNAP and the Linkup? How do you avoid conflation in the public eye, and in the eye of the hierarchy?
Post: No, we’re not “worried” about too close an identification with SNAP or the Linkup. And I truly don’t know how anyone could confuse SNAP and VOTF unless they wanted to be confused.
Both VOTF and SNAP are change agents—as are organizations of nuns, social service providers, and more. But SNAP focuses only—and in deep detail—on the physical and emotional “salvation” of survivors, and it does so from an empowered position as a group of fellow survivors. SNAP provides a menu of counseling and other services to survivors. By contrast, VOTF supports survivors as one of our goals. Our collaboration with SNAP includes appropriately referring survivors in need to SNAP and the saving services that it provides. Our third goal, that of “structural change,” is intended to ensure that sexual abuse does not recur in the future.
Gallicho: VOTF’s New Hampshire affiliate has called for the resignation of Manchester Bishop John McCormack and Auxiliary Bishop Francis Christian. Might VOTF come to be seen as a group that wants to topple bishops?
Post: Bishop John McCormack is a bishop who is covered in guilt. He admits it. People of any diocese are entitled to petition the Holy See for a bishop who is a moral leader. McCormack fails that test by his own words and admissions. His actions were not “accidents” or “oversights.” They were the knowing acts of a man who deliberately sought to conceal, cover up, and deceive others. His public acknowledgements to date have been calculated public relations efforts to save himself from the same fate as Cardinal Law’s.
The call for the resignation of Bishops McCormack and Christian came from the people of New Hampshire. It did not come about quickly or precipitously. Indeed, much prayer, thought, and reflection took place among New Hampshire Catholics. McCormack’s complicity in the handling of cases of clergy sexual abuse in Boston was revealed in 2002. As an aide to Cardinal Law, McCormack actively dealt with victims, interceded on behalf of priests, and tried to minimize or avoid litigation against the archdiocese. His administrative fingerprints are on the case of Father Paul Shanley. Despite being a licensed social worker, McCormack violated the professional standards of the field and concealed information about known and suspected abusers. Bishop Christian’s role was exclusively in New Hampshire, but involved instances of blatant deception and concealment of information.
The bishops should be defensive about these matters. They failed in their duties to God, church, and the people of God. It’s about time we held the bishops to high standards. It is scandalous that neither the Vatican nor the fellow bishops have uttered one word of criticism of Cardinal Law or Bishops McCormack, Banks, Daily, or Murphy. The “fraternal accountability” the bishops publicly promised last December in Washington, D.C., has been a charade. Not one word of reprimand has been issued. It’s a sorry picture.
The Boston Globe’s opinion poll of Boston Catholics (May 11 and 12) showed that more than 80 percent want the next archbishop to “respond” (or “defer”) to the laity, work with clergy, and not adopt a command-and-control style. The qualities Catholics want to see in their bishops are “openness to change,” “responsiveness,” and “addressing sexual abuse” (see www.boston.com/globe/spotlight/abuse/poll).
Gallicho: When the New Hampshire affiliate called for McCormack and Christian’s resignations, did it ask for approval from the national office? Did it need to? How does the national office relate to the local affiliates?
Post: There are some general statements I can make about the relationship of national VOTF to affiliate groups. First, it is the Catholics in a local community or diocese that must make the judgment about the quality of a bishop’s pastoral leadership. People want good leadership—good bishops. That’s one reason that there has been a spontaneous burst of energy in dioceses whose bishops are retiring. People—laity and clergy—want to have a voice in who leads their diocese and how that leader functions.
New Hampshire members of VOTF contacted the national office and sought advice on how to proceed. The leaders of the affiliates knew the high degree of discontent. They needed guidance as to how a case could be researched, organized, and prepared for formal submission to church authorities. One role of the national VOTF is to support local affiliates in their work. In this case, we connected knowledgeable people in Boston and elsewhere with the New Hampshire VOTF leadership. The result was a credible case, properly documented, and effectively presented at the diocesan, national, and international levels.
The relationship between the national office and local affiliates is still evolving, still being worked out. The only “hard and fast” requirement is that affiliates must agree to act in accordance with VOTF’s mission, goals, and policies. The national office is evolving into more of a clearinghouse for information, practices, and support. We give guidance, not orders. This is not a new hierarchy!
Gallicho: VOTF has had some recent success in meeting with bishops (Cardinal Francis George, for example). What has meeting with bishops meant to VOTF? Has there been any outreach to Kathleen McChesney, head of the bishops’ new Office of Child and Youth Protection (OCYP), and to the bishops’ National Review Board for the Protection of Youth (NRB)?
Post: VOTF leaders have met with more than twenty bishops in dioceses across the nation. In April, Doctor Jim Muller, VOTF’s co-founder and first president, offered a cordial, constructive introduction of VOTF’s principles and activities to Cardinal George of Chicago. The two agreed to remain in dialogue.
At about the same time, I met with Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati, Ohio. We, too, had a good conversation and agreed to continue our dialogue.
VOTF members have met with their bishops in Denver, Colorado; Hartford, Connecticut; Venice, Florida; Boise, Idaho; Brooklyn, New York; Cincinnati, Ohio; Nashville, Tennessee; Louisville, Kentucky; Seattle, Washington; and elsewhere. The relative success of these conversations has been mixed—some have been difficult, while others have been quite positive—but the significance of the meetings cannot be underestimated. In fact, they are nothing short of historic. VOTF has offered to assist the National Review Board and the Office of Child Protection in any way it can. The Catholic laity have a big stake in the success of these initiatives. It is very important that these initiatives succeed. If they fail, we will all be worse off. Many people—lay and clerical alike—are skeptical that the NRB and OCYP can succeed. And there are doubtless some bishops who would like to see them fail, and who have in fact tried to undermine their efforts (New York’s Cardinal Edward Egan and Newark’s Archbishop John Myers quickly come to mind). Our position is that we must all stand behind the commitment to accountability and disclosure.
Gallicho: What is VOTF’s membership today? Has it continued to grow? Are you making any progress in minority communities?
Post: Our current patterns show greater than 20 percent growth per quarter—from 25,000 registered supporters in January 2003 to 30,000-plus in March 2003.
VOTF had 120 Parish Voice affiliates in February 2003—and 160 in March. At the end of April, there were at least 170. This indicates an enormous pent-up demand among Catholics who want to do something about the crisis, not just endure it, and are looking for somewhere to turn. This huge block of center-Catholics is still largely untapped.
Our movement has evolved at least to where we are a mostly middle-class, educated, national audience that is largely white and middle-aged. It should be noted that we are just about half men and half women. Our relative homogeneity concerns us. We’re reaching out proactively to urban parishes—Hispanic and urban children were well represented among the abused—translating our messages into Spanish and other languages. This is already paying off: We signed on our first Spanish-speaking affiliate in April—Voz de los Fieles in San Francisco. In general, we are trying to become more understanding and knowledgeable about the various subcultures that coexist underneath the big Catholic tent.
Here’s a story that’s both interesting and illustrative: Last month we were contacted by a group of Vietnamese Catholics in Wichita, Kansas, who reported, “We, the Vietnamese Catholics in Wichita, Kansas, are the victims of power abuse and cover-up, hence the emotional hurt and depression.” These people describe themselves as “poor” and powerless. They have language and location issues regarding their worship and have begged their bishop for help. They write, “So far our voice have [sic] not been heard even after several months.” This group, which is not an official affiliate, but learned about us on our Web site and named themselves “Voice of the Vietnamese Faithful,” has turned to VOTF to help them find a voice in their diocese.
Gallicho: What are your thoughts so far on Bishop Richard Lennon, apostolic administrator of Boston, who was appointed to replace Cardinal Law?
Post: Bishop Lennon is a “caretaker” in both the positive and negative senses of that word. He does care about the Boston archdiocese and is dedicated to addressing its needs. He is also painfully mindful of his temporary position and seems afraid to take initiatives that would have any impact on the status quo, possibly in “advance deference” to his successor.
Bishop Lennon has been very slow to act—including unconscionable delays in the implementation of the child protection policy. The March 1, 2003, target date that was promised has come and gone.
Gallicho: A final question: How do you respond to those who say, “VOTF isn’t going anywhere”?
Post: Our goals and our future are connected in several ways. Goals 1 and 2 may seem “easy” because they are not controversial. That’s too simple a view of what is happening. Remember that justice is an animating principle, to the extent that it moves people to action. Goals 1 and 2 are about justice. As animating principles, we have real objectives that flow from both of these goals.
Of our other goals—reform goals like financial transparency—that will change the church, people everywhere see the need for this. We need accountability, and this goal lies within canon law, too!
We are indeed “going somewhere,” nourished by the Holy Spirit, who is shaping much of what we do. We’re trying to help ourselves, too, with a very professional strategic plan in the works that uses the gifts of many skilled and knowledgeable members to take a more proactive approach to our growth and development. And the bishops, while slow to “get it,” still have an opportunity to be part of a positive outcome to this momentous chapter in our church’s history. The bishops—together with the laity and clergy—should be part of the creation of a healthy, revitalized church. This can be a great story!
I think everyone would agree that we have accomplished the goals of whistleblowing and the expression of outrage. We have given thousands of Catholics a reason to stay in the church. We have absorbed the faithful’s anger at the hierarchy and turned it into a positive force for change.
We haven’t yet accomplished the “change the church” goal that is intrinsic to “keeping the faith.” No one believes the job is done—the church hasn’t “changed” yet, although we know from bishops’ positive and negative reactions that they are listening. The bishops’ Norms and Charter are still just promises, not realities.
We have much work to do—and we need a critical mass to do it. I encourage all Catholics who care about the future of the Catholic Church to get off the sidelines, shed the passivity we were brought up to accept as our role as laity, join Voice of the Faithful, and work toward attaining our baptismal right to “actively participate in the governance and guidance of the Catholic Church.”