Catholic Interest Groups See in Scandal a Chance to Further Their Causes

Married Catholic priests. Female priests. Openly gay lay leaders. Touchy issues like these, long considered inviolate in Roman Catholic Church circles, are suddenly facing the fiercest assault ever from change-minded groups who see the current molestation scandals as a window for harder lobbying efforts.

Such organizations say recent revelations of sexual abuse and its cover-up by members of the clergy offer a unique opportunity.

"We are seeing people who never thought of reform before galvanized to take charge of the life of the church," said Mary Louise Hartman, president of the Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church (ARCC).

ARCC wants dramatic changes in the leadership structure of the Catholic Church. Instead of having a small group of officials appoint clergy, for example, the group wants laypeople to elect church leaders.

"We’ve got to get a new way to run the show first," Hartman said. "The laity has a lot of useful skills that would be helpful for the management of the church."

But some church officials are doubtful that fundamental reform will occur. They see such lobbying as inappropriate. "People with special agendas are using this to try to advance those agendas," said William Ryan, a spokesman for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

New York City Archdiocese spokesman Joseph Zwilling believes any modifications, especially now, would be foolhardy.

"We cannot change basic church teaching on fundamental matters of the faith," he said. "We believe that what the church teaches is true and unchangeable. It has not changed for 2000 years."

The controversy heated up last month when evidence surfaced that the Boston Archdiocese had covered up the sexual abuse of more than 130 children over a 30 year period by a priest and shuffled him from parish to parish instead of forcing him to resign and reporting him to police.

After the news broke, dozens of additional people around the country stepped forward to say they too had been abused by priests. Reports also emerged indicating that other church leaders knowingly allowed priests accused of molestation to stay in the clergy.

Calling it an abuse-of-power problem, advocacy groups say they've been doing a lot of careful planning and orchestrating behind the scenes since the scandal came to light.

Some — including gay Catholic organizations like Dignity USA — demonstrated outside churches on Good Friday along with victims of sexual abuse.

"This really is a watershed moment because the absolute moral credibility of the church has been challenged in a very fundamental way," said Marianne Duddy, executive director of Dignity USA.

The ARCC has launched an international campaign encouraging Catholics to write to their local Bishops’ conferences asking that certain "doable" goals be discussed at their next meeting. Those suggestions include alleviating the priest shortage by using ordained but married priests, and allowing laypeople to approve the appointments of bishops and pastors.

Catholics for a Free Choice — whose mission is to work for marriage and optional celibacy for priests as well as women’s rights (including abortion) — has ramped up its activity. It plans to hold an international meeting at the United Nations in May, according to the group’s president Frances Kissling.

Kissling said the organization plans to challenge the Vatican’s role as U.N. permanent observer and to insist that if it continues as a participant, it conform to U.N. principles on issues such as protecting children from abuse, providing condoms for AIDS prevention and supplying the morning-after pill to rape victims.

Those pushing for change aren’t predicting that the scandal and ensuing controversy will lead to a second Reformation or sharp rift within the church, but they do think it will shake its credibility, political influence and even finances.

"You’re not going to see people leaving the church in large numbers — they’re just going to continue not to listen and make up their own mind about morality," Kissling said. "People are going to think twice about sending their kids to Catholic schools, politicians will think twice about how close they want to get to Catholic leaders."

Hartman doesn’t expect changes to happen overnight — but believes a very different era awaits Catholics in the next decade, particularly once Pope John Paul II dies.

"We feel this will eventually evolve into some kind of constitutional conference so that a new way of governing the church is established," Hartman said. "That’s when the reforms will begin to happen."

But Zwilling and other Catholic officials aren’t convinced these efforts will pay off, even in the current climate. So far, he said, there haven't been widespread or vociferous demands for reform.

"Undoubtedly there are going to be individuals or groups who will look to use any situation to their own benefit," he said. "That’s almost a given."