Catholic church feels the power of the pews

To some people, the resignation of Bernard Law as archbishop of Boston amid the ongoing scandal of child-abuse may seem astounding. It's the first-ever ousting of a bishop that's due, in part, to a rebellion by priests and lay followers. It may even have echoes of Martin Luther's church-shattering revolt in 1517.

But to faithful American Catholics like Tina DaRos, it's just simple common sense. And it's the first of many changes that must occur.

Cardinal Law was "the king of cover-up," says the self-described Catholic conservative, an interior designer in the gilded enclave of Santa Barbara, Calif., who still attends the church she grew up in.

Her three daughters are products of Catholic schools. She and her husband are "firm supporters of the pope ... and we adhere as closely to our religion as possible," she says.

Yet the deceit and callousness evidenced in the scandal, she says, "angers me."

As seen from church pews across America, Law's departure was overdue. And the child-abuse scandal is only a symptom of broader problems that must be fixed - such as the culture of secrecy and the lack of accountability. Catholics don't necessarily agree on the specifics of reform - whether to ban gay clergy or let women be priests, for instance. But their clamor for change is often strong, as is their continuing faith.

"My spirituality goes beyond this," says Rosalie Smith, a grandmother in Pittsburgh who wears jumpers and clogs. The "corrupt hierarchy," she says, doesn't keep her from attending mass every Sunday.

Doing so over the years has brought great blessings, she says, including an understanding of "how unconditionally God loves us." It's also helped her be more unselfish.

She regularly dispenses notes to ill friends - and listens caringly to others' troubles. "The church will survive," she says, evincing a steelier side, "because we - the laity - are the church."

The abuse and scandal "never would have happened if the laity - and especially women - would have been involved in the decision making process," she says, adding, "Women are not power mongers."

Strong views

Many lay members do exhibit a mind of their own. Back in June, a poll found that 87 percent of Catholics said the pope should remove a bishop who knowingly transferred an abusive priest to a new parish and didn't inform police - a policy that was only just enforced with Law, after, among other things, 58 local priests called for his resignation.

Now the focus turns to other bishops and whether there will be a domino effect from Law's ouster. Already, five bishops besides Law have been subpoenaed to testify before a Massachusetts grand jury probing whether there was a cover-up by top officials in the Boston archdiocese.

For all bishops, Law's resignation sends a clear message, says Chester Gillis, chairman of the theology department at Georgetown University in Washington: "Get all the bad news out as fast as you can, and then attempt to reconcile and rebuild." In other words, he says, "Better come clean." Stirring the wrath of priests and lay members can have consequences.

Demand for more openness

A certain restiveness does endure in the pews. A recent survey by New York-based pollster John Zogby found that 81 percent of Catholics support more openness in financial and administrative policies, and 78 percent want a stronger role for the laity. Yet one hint of the protectiveness many Catholics feel toward their church is that 60 percent say the media has exaggerated the sex-abuse scandal.

Meanwhile, the historical disagreements with church policies endure. Roughly two-thirds of Catholics say, for instance, that priests should be allowed to marry - and that women should be ordained as priests.

The disagreement with the church - along with the resolute demands for accountability and change - are a uniquely American phenomenon, says Richard Sipe, a former priest who has written widely on the subject.

Furthermore, he says, the crisis over abuse by priests is really just a symptom of wider issue of sexuality in the church. It has highlighted American Catholics' disagreements with the Vatican over issues of sex and gender.

In response to the scandal, for instance, liberal Catholics want women ordained as priests. Conservatives want to ban gay men from entering the priesthood. Indeed, the unique thing about this crisis, says Thomas Reese, editor of America, a Catholic magazine, is that it's the first one "where the left and the right are beating up on the bishops" over the same issue. And there's still common ground over accountability and openness.

Take Kristen Schaefer, a sinewy New Yorker who's a photo editor at GQ magazine. She gives readings at two masses a month at The Blessed Sacrament, an Upper West Side church in Manhattan.

After being raised Catholic in Michigan, she faded away from the church. She moved to New York in her 20s - and partied. But when she felt empty, she started returning to church. Her priest helped counsel her through a rough breakup with her boyfriend, becoming almost "a therapist to me."

Like so many, she's outraged at the priestly abuse. She hopes Law's resignation will show other church officials that they won't be able to get away with such things. But like many Catholics, she's learned to go on practicing her faith despite the controversy. "My religion is different from the institution," she says.

Loyalty to the clergy

Yet many people remain loyal to the people who wear the collars, too. Inside the St. Thomas Aquinas church in Boston's Jamaica Plain neighborhood, wreaths hang throughout. "It was a sad thing, but it had to happen," says Jim Hennigan of Law's resignation.

Mr. Hennigan, an imposing man with a deep voice, has lived in the neighborhood for seven decades. He says his faith is renewed by priests.

"I've known a lot of great priests," he says. "The good priests are our inspiration - and because of them the church continues."

Staff writer Jane Lampman contributed to this report in Boston, as did Sara Miller in New York and James Blair in Los Angeles.

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