Indianapolis -- As the nation's Roman Catholic bishops prepare to meet in Washington on Nov. 11 to complete their policy on sexual abuse by priests, they are confronting the most organized and widespread challenge to their power from the laity in the church's modern history.
Organizations like Voice of the Faithful, a national group formed in April in response to the scandal, are badgering bishops to disclose financial and personnel information previously kept locked in chancery offices. Other new lay groups are forming, old ones like Call to Action are finding new momentum, and all are talking about how to make the bishops accountable.
The demands for a role in church governance are being made by laypeople in dioceses far from Boston, the epicenter of the sex abuse crisis.
Here in Indianapolis, the archdiocese has been relatively unscathed by scandal, with only two priests accused in lawsuits of misconduct and another under investigation. Yet when a handful of concerned parishioners called a meeting to start an Indiana chapter of Voice of the Faithful, 125 people showed up.
Now the chapter is calling on Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein of Indianapolis to reveal how many priests have been accused of sexual misconduct, how much the archdiocese has spent as a result of those accusations, and how the archbishop chose the members of his sexual abuse review board.
"All these years I just left these matters to the bishops, but now I've had an awakening and realize that the laity must take responsibility for the church," said Mary Heins, treasurer of the Voice of the Faithful chapter in Indiana. "The bishops are hoping we'll drop the ball and become disinterested, but that's not going to happen. This is the time of the laypeople."
In previous eras, American Catholics in some dioceses sporadically challenged their bishops, and the Second Vatican Council in the 1960's called for more lay involvement in the church. But the widespread restiveness among laypeople now is unheard of, scholars said.
"This lay movement is the largest we have seen in the history of the American church," said the Rev. Gerald Fogarty, a Jesuit historian at the University of Virginia who has studied Catholic lay movements from Colonial times to the present.
The demands for structural change reverberating through the church have aroused fear and backlash from some bishops, but from others, a new receptiveness.
Nine bishops have recently banned Voice of the Faithful from meeting on church premises.
In a tense encounter in the Diocese of Camden, N.J., for example, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio called a Voice of the Faithful organizer "an ignorant Catholic" in a meeting, said the organizer, Kevin Gemmell, a technology consultant.
Mr. Gemmell said he responded, "I may not know all the intricacies, but I can see the hierarchy failed us by allowing all these abusers to stay in ministry."
But elsewhere, laypeople say bishops are demonstrating new responsiveness. In Baltimore, Cardinal William H. Keeler has won acclaim from laypeople for making public the names of every priest there who was ever credibly accused of sexual abuse, and how much the archdiocese had spent to resolve the cases.
In San Diego, Bishop Robert H. Brom invited to his office leaders of the local chapter of Call to Action, a liberal group seeking changes in the church, which is unwelcome in many dioceses. San Diego pastors had shunned the group. "For anyone interested in lay organizing," said Janet Mansfield, the group's San Diego coordinator, "now is a good time, because there's a vulnerability there on the part of the bishops, and they're a little more open."
When the depth of the scandal became apparent this year, even Catholic conservatives criticized the bishops and called for increased lay participation in church decisions. But as the lay groups have grown more assertive, some conservatives have expressed alarm that they are using the crisis for more radical changes.
Deal W. Hudson, the conservative editor of the Catholic magazine Crisis, accused Voice of the Faithful in a recent editorial of being "a wolf in sheep's clothing." Mr. Hudson said in an interview that the group's real goals were the ordination women, allowing married priests and the lifting of the ban on birth control.
James Post, a professor at Boston University's School of Management who is the national president of Voice of the Faithful, denied those assertions in an interview.
"On matters where church teaching is settled and clear, we accept the authority of the church," Mr. Post said. "We are not challenging the church's teaching on abortion. We are not for election of bishops, or for doing away with the pope.
"We are serious people, trying to bring serious change. We think the best way to do that is to encourage a dialogue at a four-sided table," he said, with bishops, priests, abuse victims and laity.
While some of those involved in Voice of the Faithful have been pressing for liberalizing changes for years, others say they are moderates or conservatives who only want a say in church governance. Of four Voice of the Faithful leaders interviewed around a dining room table in Indianapolis, two volunteered that they would favor the ordination of women a major liberal demand while one called that too radical for her.
"I am more conservative," said Lola McIntyre, a music professor at the University of Indianapolis. "I just can't picture women priests."
Another leader of the group is a retired therapist who left the priesthood in 1968, disheartened by the encyclical that maintained the ban on birth control.
"It's the first time in 34 years I've thought there was any real hope for Catholicism to be an expression of the gospel," said Jay E. Carrigan, the former priest who is now married, "because the scandal may be sufficient to open things up."
The Indiana group recently wrote to Archbishop Buechlein asking him to include a victim of sexual abuse on his lay review board. His reply, declining their request, concluded, "I have heard your voice; however, there are other voices of the faithful that, as archbishop, I also listen to, and those voices are at odds in many instances with yours."
The archbishop was not available for an interview, but his chancellor, Suzanne L. Magnant, a laywoman who has served in the position for 11 years, said that she saw no need for Voice of the Faithful. "I'm puzzled why people think there aren't laypeople involved in the church, because there are, and there have been for 40 years," Ms. Magnant said.
But Voice of the Faithful organizers say they want not only participation but a share of power.
"I've been a lector, a soccer coach, a greeter and a member of the parish council," said Ken Sauer, who is chief academic officer of the Indiana Commission for Higher Education. "We've been active, but not on questions of how is the church to be run. Now we're asking, how do we change the structure of the church so that laypeople can be heard?"
Through most of American history, the laity has been excluded from church governance, with some exceptions. Early in the 19th century, lay trustees in some cities sought to recruit priests and bishops of their choice, arguing that privileges once granted to European monarchs should also be enjoyed by laypeople in a democracy, Mr. Fogarty said.
About 1820, Bishop John England in Charleston, S.C., accommodated some of the lay trustees' demands, establishing a House of Clergy and a House of Laity to govern the diocese. His successor undid those changes, and other bishops worked to suppress lay participation in governance.
The laity remained quiescent for more than a century, until Cardinal John Dearden of Detroit led a Call to Action conference in 1976, with debates on social justice by 1,350 lay delegates. Many spoke of what they called injustices in the church, and the bishops later distanced themselves from the conference.
But the Call to Action delegates from Chicago continued to meet, and in 1990 they attracted a new national following by publishing an advertisement in The New York Times, calling for the ordination of women and other changes in church law.
Father Fogarty, the Jesuit historian, said demographic changes help explain the assertiveness of lay Catholics. The pews were once filled with immigrants who knelt in reverence before men of the collar; today prosperous Catholics with advanced degrees who resent clerical imperiousness fill many churches. Now that the abuse crisis has exposed the limitations of episcopal rule, the laity feels it has the skills and stature to confront its bishops, he said.
Voice of the Faithful was founded in Wellesley, Mass., in April with the goal of bringing together parishioners upset by the sex abuse scandal. It has since grown into a nationwide network of lay Catholics that claims 25,000 members. Two days after a July 20 convention attracted 4,000 Catholics from across the nation to Wellesley, Cardinal Bernard F. Law barred the group from meeting in churches of the Boston Archdiocese.
Since then, bishops have issued similar bans in Portland, Me., Bridgeport, Conn., Rockville Centre, N.Y., Brooklyn, Newark, Camden, Lafayette, Ind., and Baker, Ore.
Archbishop John J. Myers did not even wait for Voice of the Faithful to arrive in the Newark Archdiocese before his ban, accusing the group on Oct. 9 of being "anti-church and, ultimately, anti-Catholic."
In Rockville Centre, Bishop William F. Murphy's August ban helped Voice of the Faithful grow, said Sheila Peiffer, the group's area coordinator. The Voice's founding meetings on Long Island in the summer attracted fewer than 100 people, but its first after Bishop Murphy's ban, on Sept. 11, attracted about 700 people, Mr. Peiffer said.
"Murphy gave us a lot of free publicity," she said.
In Bend, Ore., Richard R. Hickman, a 74-year-old retired machinist and lifelong Catholic, sought to organize a Voice affiliate. After Bishop Robert F. Vasa refused Mr. Hickman's request to meet in Bend's St. Francis of Assisi parish, and other church officials warned him against meddling in church affairs, Mr. Hickman and his wife, Joyce, invited interested Catholics to a July 2 meeting in their backyard.
"I left my fear in Korea," Mr. Hickman said. Forty-two people attended, and several expressed frustration with the secrecy surrounding how church money was being spent in a parish building project. At 7:15, Bishop Vasa arrived, and after listening for half an hour, stood up.
"The church is not a democracy," Bishop Vasa declared, Mr. Hickman said, at which point four people, one of them a victim of sex abuse by a clergyman, stalked out.
In an interview, Bishop Vasa recalled the meeting: "I said, `Be careful, because your local interests can be valid and worked with the pastor, but if you take on with this national organization you'll be linked with a group that doesn't enjoy a good reputation."
Bishop Vasa went on to say, "I won't tolerate a group claiming to operate under the Catholic Church while at odds with their pastor and bishop."
Mr. Hickman said he and his wife had left the church because of the bishop's attitude.
"When it gets to be such a kinglike thing, with the bishop saying, `I'm the ruler,' that doesn't go over anymore," Mr. Hickman said.