BOSTON — So much for Voice of the Faithful’s “neutrality.”

The Boston-based reform group, which formed in 2002 following revelations of clergy sexual misconduct in the Boston archdiocese, has been frequently accused of being a front group for Church dissenters.

And the organization — which by its own admission is currently facing both a “financial crisis” and a “crisis of leadership” — recently gave support to those accusations by breaking with its stated policy of “neutrality” between dissenting voices and the magisterium of the Catholic Church on issues like the ordination of married men.

On June 24, in an article titled “Catholic Lay Group Tests a Strategy Change,” The New York Times reported that Voice of the Faithful is lobbying for a Vatican “review” of the discipline of priestly celibacy.

“I take it to be a radical departure from what Voice of the Faithful has claimed was its policy and approach from the start,” Russell Shaw, a former spokesman for the U.S. bishops’ conference, said to the Register about the group’s decision to lobby about celibacy.

Since its inception, Voice of the Faithful has had a close association with prominent Church dissenters (see sidebar, page 12).

In response to criticism that it was using the abuse crisis as a pretext to push dissenting agendas, Voice of the Faithful formulated a “VOTF Policies and Positions” statement in 2002.

The document, which is posted on the VOTF website, states the group focuses on helping survivors of abuse — supporting faithful priests who uphold their vows, and seeking structural changes to prevent abuse — and that Voice of the Faithful takes no position “on the many other issues that divide Catholics.”

According to the document, “We do not advocate the end of priestly celibacy, the exclusion of homosexuals from the priesthood, the ordination of women, or any of the other remedies that have been proposed across the spectrum of Catholic thought.”

In an interview with the Register, Voice of the Faithful president Mary Pat Fox said her group does not believe celibacy directly causes abuse. She said the reason for calling for a Vatican review is because the celibate priesthood has been “one of the cornerstones of clericalism, which has created this culture of secrecy which is what really allowed the bishops to handle the sexual abuse crisis the way they did.”

Fox denied that asking for a review is a violation of Voice’s neutrality commitment.

“We’re not coming out with a statement that this is what we think the outcome of this review should be,” Fox said. “We’re saying that we don’t think the Vatican’s looked at it from this point of view before.”

Shaw accused Fox of “hairsplitting.” He said that although celibacy is a Church discipline, not a formal doctrine, and is therefore open to discussion among faithful Catholics, it’s improper to target the Vatican by asking it to review something that the Church has required for centuries and that was recently reaffirmed by Pope Benedict XVI.

Said Shaw, “If it isn’t dissent, it’s first cousin to dissent. I don’t see much difference.”

Regarding Fox’s assertion that celibacy contributed to clericalism, and indirectly to the cover-up of sexual abuse, Shaw said that he has extensively researched and written about the abuse of secrecy in the Church and will publish a book on the topic next year.

 “But in all I’ve written about it and all I’ve read about it and all I’ve thought about it, I’ve never seen that point made,” Shaw said. “And I have no idea what the lady is talking about.”

Money Problems

Because of concerns that Voice of the Faithful promotes dissent and division, its activities have been banned or restricted in about 20 U.S. dioceses, Voice of the Faithful spokesman John Moynihan told the Register last year.

The decision to take a public stance on the priestly celibacy issue — and risk being banned by even more dioceses and alienating lay Catholics who believe the group’s claims of neutrality — may have been related to Voice of the Faithful’s financial problems.

The May 3 issue of the group’s newsletter, In the Vineyard, contains a report on an April 27-29 meeting in Boston of Voice of the Faithful’s national leaders.

At the meeting, Bill Casey, chairman of Voice of the Faithful’s Board of Trustees, and Mark Mullaney, its interim executive director, both warned that the group was facing a financial crisis.

“Although the number of individual contributors has increased, in the past year or so the number of major donors has declined,” said the newsletter article. “VOTF must reverse this trend to erase a projected $100,000 deficit in the next fiscal year.”

Fox attributed the financial problems to ineffective fundraising from major donors, and told the Register that the problem was being addressed by hiring a part-time development officer.

In the same issue of the newsletter, the organization acknowledged it faces other problems.

“In addition to the financial crisis facing VOTF, Bill Casey identified a crisis in leadership,” the newsletter said. “Evidence of this comes from the low response rates (a range of 1% to 5%) when members are asked for input on proposals.”

Former Voice of the Faithful President Jim Post acknowledged to The New York Times that there is an ongoing internal dispute about whether the group should openly push dissenting agendas like the ordination of women and married priests.

Said Post, “Even I, from time to time, wonder whether we shouldn’t just declare victory and say a lot’s been done in five years, the Church is doing better than it was, and then let the other organizations — Call to Action, Future Church and others that really want to deal with these issues — have the field.”

Asked about Post’s comments, current President Fox said that Post had told her that the Times quote wasn’t “totally complete.”

Said Fox, “I wouldn’t want you to think that we are leaving the centrist position.”

Voice of the Faithful’s actions have disappointed people who initially backed the group’s efforts to address the abuse problem.

One pastor in the Archdiocese of Boston originally supported Voice of the Faithful, as his heart went out to the numerous sexual abuse victims and their families. He allowed the group to meet on church property at first, but he became increasingly disillusioned as time went on.

“They switched hats,” said the priest, who did not want to be named. “Other groups with other agendas seemed to be involved.”

The Boston-area priest had encouraged people to work for reform within the Church structure, but he came to conclude that was not Voice’s goal.

The real eye-opener for this pastor came a few years ago when an auxiliary bishop came to visit his parish. He was greeted with hostility from Voice of the Faithful people outside the church on bullhorns, much to the pastor’s surprise.

“I went bonkers at that,” he said. “Their actions just didn’t seem fair.”

Since then, the group has no longer met at the church.

Russell Shaw is also dismayed by what has happened with Voice of the Faithful.

“All along, when they’ve spoken about the need for accountability, for openness, for the avoidance of excessive secrecy in the conduct of the Church’s affairs, my reaction has been they’re entirely right,” Shaw said. “But the problem all along has been this undercurrent of an excess of coziness with dissent.”

(Gail Besse contributed to this report.) Tom McFeely is based in Victoria, British Columbia.