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You Don't Have to Ride Jim Crow!

Jean Birkenstein Washington

Boston Herald

MSNBC feature

Robin Washington
Articles - Catholic Church abuse scandal

Church movement seen forming

Boston Herald, October 13, 2002

Outside the Cathedral of the Holy Cross today, three dozen protesters will gather as they have most Sundays this year, parading signs emblazoned with the latest developments in the clergy sex scandal.

And at local parishes throughout the week, Voice of the Faithful chapters will meet to outline strategies for other, less confrontational, ways to change the church.

In both approaches, as well as untold other actions by individual Catholics, social scientists see a mass movement in the making.

"This is reminiscent of the early days of the civil rights movement," said Charlotte Ryan, a social movement sociologist at Boston College.

The similarities are many, she says: Victims of clergy abuse who shed their shame to take to the streets echo African-American activists of a half-century ago who chose protest to overcome the very real physical violence and indignity of segregation. And in support of both groups, others not directly touched by injustice emerged to work behind the scenes.

But, Ryan cautioned, the analogy may end there.

"A lot of times, social movements start but they don't reach their full potential," she said, noting that in the current struggle many seeking change may find obstacles they hadn't anticipated.

Svea Fraser of VOTF acknowledged that problem.

"I feel like we're in a car stuck in neutral," she said, stating that the organization of lay Catholics whose goal is "keep the faith, change the church" has had a rude awakening since its January founding.

"A lot of us naively thought, `Won't the bishops be happy that we are staying here and want to help the church from within?' " she said.

Instead, those bishops have responded with coolness. The Boston Archdiocese also has rejected a $50,000 VOTF donation earmarked for social programs.

At the cathedral, protester Laura Breault of Speak Truth to Power said she also perceives a loss of momentum.

"It baffles me. People say they're so outraged but they don't come down to the cathedral," she said.

Acknowledging that rank-and-file Catholics may not be comfortable picketing a church, she said, "I think it's because many of them don't know survivors or understand them. Survivors need a place to go to yell and scream. For many of them, it's healing."

In an appeal to more moderate groups, STTOP in recent weeks has softened its tactics, refraining from using bullhorns and taunts during Mass out of respect for worshipers.

Conversely, they say, VOTF could show a little more activism.

Though such divisions may seem intractable, they are present in most mass movements, said Aldon Morris, a Northwestern University sociologist and leading scholar of social movements.

"There are always distractions, always competing interests, always disagreements on tactics," he said, pointing to wide differences among civil rights organizations. "The idea that everyone is united is mythology."

But a knowledge of the successes and failures of others is key, he said.

"If (church activists) wish to coalesce as a major movement, they need to know the history and lessons of movements. The civil rights movement was helped greatly by folks who were steeped in nonviolent direct action and who had studied it."

That study should include movements that fell short of their goals, he said, offering as an example the Million Man March.

"You had more than a million people out there, but after, there was no real organizing, no follow-up, nothing," he said. "I was there. It was a movement that was very pregnant but was a big fizzle afterward."

VOTF spokesman Mike Emerton said his group is working to avoid that and is already seeking outside help. As a start, it has retained a canon lawyer to better deal with church hierarchy, which Emerton described as the root of the problem.

"This movement is to clean up an institution that's supposed to guide you to a better life after this one," he said.

"Maybe we will have to turn a little bit, take a different tactic, such as Rosa Parks did, because the dialogue is not working."

For the latest on the church scandal, click here for the Boston Herald's Trail of Abuse coverage.

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