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Priests Encourage Clergy To Speak Out Against Abuse

Jan 11, 2003 | AP To the Rev. Robert Bullock, the lesson of the clerical sex abuse crisis that began in his own Boston Archdiocese is simple priests cannot risk remaining silent and subservient.

"Crimes were committed in our parishes by our brother priests," says Bullock, a co-founder of the Boston Priests Forum. "What made us so passive, so supine, so unwilling to take risks?

"We can't be that way again," he says. "Those things are going to happen again. We can't be complicit."

Already credited by some with playing a role in the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law as Boston archbishop, Bullock and others in the group hope the forum grows to combat the secrecy at the heart of the sex abuse problem among the clergy.

Still, some priests see the mere existence of a group of priests independent of the archdiocese as divisive. The Rev. Joseph Hennessey said the forum can best serve the archdiocese "by disbanding."

A forum leader, the Rev. John McGinty, compares the group's future to the development of a precious stone.

"The pressure either makes it or breaks it," he said.

The forum's start was innocuous enough - three priests meeting for dinner in September 2001 to hash out everyday concerns such as loneliness and overwork. But the hunger for fellowship was sharp, and the group grew to around 50 by the end of that year, just before the sex abuse scandal broke.

Law became the lightning rod of dissent among parishioners and alleged victims for shifting priests accused of molesting children from parish to parish.

Priests were demoralized by their colleagues' misconduct and the hierarchy's mishandling of the cases. But they also worried about false accusations, and the forum spoke out when Law seemed cool to their concerns.

Some labeled them rebels after 58 priests, including members of the forum, signed a letter calling for Law to step down days before he tendered his resignation to the pope Dec. 13.

Priests take a vow of obedience to their bishop, and disputes between clergymen and prelates are usually settled privately. The priests' public effort to oust the cardinal was unprecedented.

Even with Law's resignation, the archdiocese still faces more than 400 lawsuits filed by alleged victims of abuse, which the archdiocese has pledged to settle, and the release of more documents on problem priests.

In the past couple of months alone, more than 11,000 pages of archdiocese personnel files on more than 80 priests were released, detailing a range of allegations, from a priest who beat up his housekeeper to another who seduced young girls studying to become nuns by telling them he was the "second coming of Christ."

McGinty said fulfilling pastoral duties in the midst of crisis remains priests' chief concern, leaving little time for them to reflect on what their new voice now means.

Forum leaders have expressed a willingness to work with Bishop Richard Lennon, the archdiocese's interim leader, though no meeting has been set. A spokeswoman for the archdiocese declined to comment.

The forum adopted a constitution in November, establishing a registered membership and an executive board, which will be elected sometime early this year.

Stephen Pope, chairman of the theology department at Boston College, said the forum must include a broader range of ages, theologies and geographic areas to combat the perception that it is liberal or controlled by a few prominent priests. At the same time, it must work to keep a broad base unified.

"The last thing you want to do is create more splinter groups," he said.

Hennessey, a priest at St. Joseph Church in Kingston, contends that the Boston Priests Forum doesn't represent the majority of archdiocesan priests, either numerically or in what he said is a liberal theological bent. The forum estimates it has 250 of the archdiocese's 550 active priests as members.

Hennessey said the group duplicates the work of the Presbyteral Council, an elected body of priests within the archdiocese which can voice concerns, and has set up an "us vs. them" mentality by establishing itself independently.

"The church is like a family," he said. "Families settle things...face to face. The church is not Ward 16 politics. The church is not the union hall."

The Rev. Paul Kilroy, a forum founder, said canon law gives priests the right to form their own groups, adding that the forum must play an important role as the archdiocese moves forward.

"We have to get out of the bunker mentality," Kilroy said. "We have to get out of the secrecy."

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