Speaking Up for Survivors

Speaking Up for Survivors

Voice of the Faithful confronts the church, reaches out to abuse victims.

Trying to "heal" his church in the wake of a devastating scandal, the president of an international Catholic Lay organization addressed the local Northern Virginia chapter for the first time on Monday night.

They came from all over the region to hear Jim Post speak. From Arlington to Annandale and Rockville to Reston, more than 120 devoted but frustrated Catholics, including many survivors of clergy sexual abuse, came to listen to the leader of the Voice of the Faithful (VOTF) during his Oct. 6 talk at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria. Post implored his audience to become involved in actively healing the church. "The Church does not need Band-Aids, it needs major orthopedic surgery," Post said.

In September of this year, the Northern Virginia chapter of VOTF, about 100 members strong, moved their meetings from the basement of the McLean Public Library to the Our Lady Queen of Peace, a South Arlington parish, the same parish that sponsored a "healing mass" earlier this summer, the only such mass in any parish in the Arlington Diocese.

BORN IN BOSTON, the epicenter of the priest abuse scandals, Voice of the Faithful now reaches 40 states, 21 countries and 30,000 active Catholics worldwide. “I hope that there is no other dioceses with a similar record [as Boston] but I am not convinced that is the case," Post said. “We’ve seen too many stories to feel smug and comfortable. We have to learn the truth and deal with it.”

Post said that VOTF aims to give the laity a voice in the governance and guidance of the Catholic Church. The organization has three main thrusts, Post said. It offers support for survivors of sexual abuse, support for "priests of integrity" and helps shape structural change in the church, he said.

Throughout his talk, Post encouraged the church, and its leaders, to be more inclusive and to allow the laity to take a stronger role in addressing the lingering effects of the clergy sexual abuse case that has haunted the Catholic Church for the last few years.

“It’s flat out absurd that the church doesn’t call on the talents of all its members," he said. "If you believe there is a problem in the church then there is a lot you can do. We cannot sit by idly and let the church be unresponsive. ... Your voice counts.”

DAVE LORENZ IS one of those voices. Silent for too long, Lorenz said he is ready to share his story.

After years of suffering in silence and denial, Lorenz, a victim of childhood abuse at the hands of his hometown priest, wanted to make sure what happened to him as a young boy would not happen to other innocent children. With support from his wife, belief in his faith and outrage at his church’s lies and sins, Lorenz, of Bowie, Md., knew he could be silent no more.

Devout in their faith but devoted to healing painful wounds, restoring trust and protecting children, Dave and Judy Lorenz, like many Lay Catholics around the country, want to start a VOTF group in their local Bowie parish. More than 180 parishes around the country have such a group, Post said, but hundreds of other parishes and dioceses have resisted extending an arm to the organization.

“Out of fear, embarrassment and shame, I didn’t speak up until recently,” Dave Lorenz said. “Now, it feels like I am doing something I wished I had done years ago because I know that more boys were hurt and abused after I was. I want to give a voice to those people. People need to know that here are people here for support.”

LIKE LORENZ, POST felt compelled to act in the face of so many abuse cases. “I am a very ordinary Catholic,” said Post, a Boston University professor. ”I was prompted to get out of my chair because of the nature of this issue.”

Post said it was not enough for the church to crack down on abuse, it also needed to open its arms to the victims because they will be a part of the church for the next 10 to 80 years. “We must find a way to draw lessons from this terrible tragedy and incorporate those into our living church," he said. “We haven’t yet come to terms with what it means to have thousands of survivors in our community and in our midst.”

The scandals in Boston and other parishes around the country were the “dirty little secret of people in the chancery and archdiocese,” he said. When those secrets were exposed, the church failed to respond to victims. Instead the church hierarchy, especially the 302 bishops, moved to protect their own interests, Post said.

“This is the biggest crisis that American bishops have ever faced — a crisis of truth,” he said. "I'm afraid Bishops live a great distance from their faithful. It’s a crisis that is too big to be ignored.”

Calls to the Arlington Diocese seeking comment were not returned.

WILLIAM CASEY, ONE of the two local leaders of the Northern Virginia affiliate of the VOTF, hosted the talk and said the young chapter is focusing on the first goal of the parent organization — supporting victims. “They were not only abused initially, many of them were abused a second time by being shunned by the hierarchy and in some ways they are being abused a third time because they are still lying on the side of the road some place," Casey said.

To help support the victims, the local VOTF chapter and SNAP, the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, have worked collaboratively.

Mark Serrano, the East Coast regional director of SNAP and an abuse survivor himself, said he is happy to see VOTF gain a foothold in the region. “Voice of the Faithful has distinguished itself through compassion and commitment,” Serrano said.

Dioceses like Arlington should not rest easy, Serrano warned. “Sexual abuse is not uncommon because of the nature of the church and the tolerance of the bishops to look a blind eye,” he said. “Look around, there are likely abuse victims sitting near them in the pews each Sunday morning.”

Local dioceses have tended to gloss over the problem, Serrano said. “Cardinal [Theodore Edgar] McCarrick has lulled everybody into this false sense of security that there are no scandals here,” he said, of the Washington Archbishop. “His brother bishops have followed suit and it is very unfortunate and very sad. McCarrick’s charade has anesthetized the church around here, but I don’t blame the regular Catholics.”

WHILE GROUPS LIKE SNAP and VOTF are looking to reach out to victims, they would also like to open a dialogue with the Arlington Diocese and Bishop Paul Stephen Loverde, but that hasn’t happened yet.

Casey admitted that engaging the Arlington Diocese has been a bit of a struggle. But it is a struggle that Casey feels is too important to quit.

“I believe in the Church that I grew up in,” said Casey, an Alexandria resident and a product of Philadelphia Catholic schools. “If you look at the Gospels, the message there is that the people who are disadvantaged or injured are the people we should be ministering to and these people are directly wounded by the church with which we are a part."

Dating back to December 2002, Casey said his group has sent two letters to Loverde urging the bishop to take the lead in reaching out to victims of abuse. Another, similar letter was sent in August, but "we haven't heard from him," Casey said.

CASEY DOESN’T BELIEVE, as some do, that there had been a edict from Loverde, formal or informal, that prohibited parishes from housing VOTF meetings. "What I do think is in the air is a belief that it won’t be acceptable to the chancery or the bishop," he said.

Casey added that his chapter would like to have more "healing masses" and to do additional outreach programs. “It would help, however, if, at the very least, that the local parishes knew that Bishop Loverde was not opposed to the idea even if he doesn’t fully endorse it. We look forward to hearing from him on this matter.”

Casey remains hopeful that Loverde will open a dialogue with the local Northern Virginia affiliate.

“The abuse may not have occurred in this diocese," Casey conceded. "But it occurred somewhere in our church and those people are living here and they are members of our parishes and members of our community. All they want to feel as if they are welcome in their own church and accepted for who they are.”

OPPOSITION TO POST'S organization is not limited to a skeptical church hierarchy, the lay group's leaders admit. More conservative members of the Catholic Church worry that VOTF is trying push a controversial agenda. A charge, both Post and Casey denied. “There is a great fear of change,” Post said.

Labels like conservative and liberal are too simple, Casey said, adding that many more conservative members of the church have supported VOTF works.

Kathy Witkowski-Jacobs of Arlington said some of her friends have criticized her involvement with VOTF, but she feels no guilt about it. The Detroit transplant insisted that looking out for the victims is part of her Catholic duty.

The policy positions that VOTF has taken relate directly to the sexual abuse crisis and to the "secrecy and deception" that helped keep the story buried for so many years, Post said.

But several times throughout the two-hour talk, Post noted that his organization has consistently made a distinction between faith and the “human administration of the church."

VOTF has purposely stayed away from "hot button issues", issues like the ordination of women, the exclusion of homosexuals from the priesthood, or the end of priestly celibacy. “The more issues you take up, the more likely you are to get marginalized,” Casey told the audience.

That is exactly what Dave and Judy Lorenz wanted to hear.

While the Lorenz’s pastor initially expressed his willingness to open his parish doors to a VOTF group, the priest rescinded his invitation after some members of the congregation objected to the group.

“Dr. Post made it very clear what Voice of the Faithful stands for and what it doesn’t,” Judy Lorenz said. “Our goal now is to convince our parish not to be afraid. A lot of people fear that Voice of the Faithful is going to try change tackle those 'hot-button' issues. As we heard tonight, that is not their mission.”

“There is a difference between the church and its faith and the administrative structure that runs it,” Dave Lorenz added. "Hopefully this will cool some fears in our parish."

While bishops have been slow to embrace the VOTF movement, Post thinks that the answer lies in individual parishes. Pastors hold the key, he said. “They need to know that their life is not going to become more difficult, in fact it will become better with an active laity,” he said. "We win with one priest, one pastor, one parish at a time, but there is no easy fix."