In the Vineyard :: June 172016 :: Volume 16, Issue 12

Affiliate News: Mid-Michigan (continued)

In 2005 several affiliate members attended the VOTF National Convention in Indianapolis. The information obtained there pertaining to the role of the church in the abuse scandal, and the role of the bishops in particular, was very disturbing. Particularly noteworthy was the speech by Justice Anne Burke on her disappointing three years on the National Review Board and the attempts of the USCCB to eviscerate the Dallas Charter.

Initially, the monthly affiliate meetings were rotated among the four cities, but usually members would only attend if the meeting was held in their city. Since most members were from Midland, the affiliate began meeting exclusively in that location. Since the group was not officially recognized by the diocese, permission to use church facilities was left to the discretion of the pastors and meetings were only allowed at one parish, Blessed Sacrament. However, as the organization established credibility and pastors were rotated, a working relationship was established with Assumption and St. Brigid’s as well.

The first affiliate meetings always began with a round-robin where members were asked why they were attending the meeting. This gave people a forum to voice their anger, frustration, dismay and exasperation with the church leadership, a forum that was not available to the laity in the church proper.

Eventually it became evident that, despite the need for people to get these negative feelings off their chests, the affiliate was going to need some positive direction and goals if anything was going to be accomplished. One of the early efforts was to push for the relaxation or elimination of the Michigan civil statute of limitations for sexual abuse of children. Members wrote letters and visited with their state legislators and attended a meeting of the Judiciary Committee to comment on the proposed bill, but to no avail. The intensive lobbying effort against the bill, particularly by the Michigan Catholic Conference, kept the bill bottled up in Committee so it never reached the floor for a vote. (The MCC claims to represent every Catholic diocese, parish, school, hospital and parishioner in the state.)

During the last months of Bishop Ken Untener’s tenure as Bishop of Saginaw, a Pastoral Consultation was formed to provide feedback from the laity. The affiliate viewed this as a great opportunity for providing input that might lead to structural and financial reforms in the church . However, when Bishop Carlson arrived, he chose to use the consultation for his top-down communications alone, and there was no longer any input from the laity. The consultation quickly lost momentum and died.
Soon after Bishop Carlson’s arrival, the affiliate officers requested and were granted a meeting with the bishop. The intended purpose was to express concerns with the church and especially with the church’s intensive lobbying efforts, through the Michigan Catholic Conference, against relaxing the civil statute of limitations for sexual abuse of children. The meeting was not productive, with the bishop doing almost all of the talking and very little listening.

However, a secondary purpose of the meeting was to let the bishop see that the affiliate was a group of serious, concerned Catholics whose intentions were for the betterment of the church. At that time many clergy looked at VOTF with somewhat hostile attitudes, and we didn’t want the bishop to ban us from using church facilities in the diocese. In the end, the bishop left that decision up to the local pastors.

Although the abuse problems which have so far come to light in the Saginaw Diocese have been relatively light compared to some dioceses, the affiliate felt a healing service for survivors, both known and unknown would be appropriate. Not too long after Bishop Carlson’s arrival, we obtained permission locally to hold the service at Blessed Sacrament. In order to build a good relationship with the bishop, and to build our credibility as well, we invited Bishop Carlson to preside at the service. Initially he accepted our offer, but soon after reversed himself stating that he was going to hold his own healing service at the Cathedral. Bishop Gumbleton was then asked to preside, and he accepted. Permission was obtained for him to preside in the Saginaw Diocese, and the service turned out beautifully with over 100 attendees.

When Bishop Cistone succeeded Carlson, the affiliate officers again requested and were granted a meeting with the new bishop. Again, the bulk of the communication was top down. The officers did manage to express concerns about the civil statute of limitations, and the bishop stated that he was afraid a lawsuit might bankrupt the Saginaw Diocese, since it was not as wealthy as his former diocese in Philadelphia. When asked about the funding of the Michigan Catholic Conference, which lobbies against SOL reforms, the bishop stated that he did not know how it was funded. (Earlier requests directly to the MCC requesting funding information were met with a response that the information was confidential.)  However, soon after the meeting with the bishop, the CSA brochure was published stating that part of the donations was earmarked to support the MCC.

The vast majority of the priests in the Saginaw Diocese are hard-working and dedicated to serving the people of God. A few of them have verbally and actively supported our affiliate. As one of our goals is to support priests of integrity, the affiliate decided to single out for recognition those individuals thought to go above and beyond. Priest of Integrity Awards were presented to Fr. Jeff Donner (posthumously) and to Fr. Malcolm Maloney, both of whom provided support and encouragement to the affiliate.

Over the years there has been much discussion on the approach the affiliate should use to have the best chance of achieving its goals. A conscious decision was made to act as an alternative voice within the church we love. Members who preferred a more confrontational approach were encouraged to do so through one of the organizations which utilizes that philosophy. There is certainly a time and a need for both styles.

The affiliate has benefited from a relationship with “The Elephants in the Living Room”, an organization of priests and laity in the Detroit Archdiocese which brings in forward-thinking speakers from across the country. When a pertinent speaker is scheduled, several affiliate members will try to attend the event and purchase a DVD to bring back for a future educational session for the rest of the affiliate.

Recently the affiliate went through a series of professionally led goal-setting exercises which developed the following vision and mission, along with the action plans to help achieve them:
Vision: The laity shares in the leadership and ministry of the Diocese of Saginaw.

Mission: To provide a prayerful voice, attentive to the spirit, through which the Faithful can actively participate in the governance and guidance of the Catholic Church.
This vision and mission are supplemented by the goals of VOTF:

  • To support survivors of clergy sexual abuse

  • To support priests of integrity

  • To shape structural change within the Catholic church

Financial transparency has been one of the concerns of the affiliate. A series of letters and meetings, primarily by one member, have led to the publication of the diocesan financial statement on the diocesan web page. Although lacking in a lot of detail, it is a step in the right direction.

In order to bring about change in the church, Catholics should have a good knowledge of the history, laws and functioning of the church, as well as current affairs. To help provide this knowledge, an educational session is held at the beginning of each affiliate meeting, as well as spring and autumn programs open to the wider church. A program on the life of Pope Francis and how it influenced the person he is today was attended by over 40 people.

Currently over 300 comments are being evaluated from the 125 people who attended the more recent program on “Why Are Catholics Leaving the Church?” The feedback from that program will form the basis of a second program to be held in the fall.

Offers have been extended to work jointly with the adult education staff at local parishes to obtain speakers and produce educational programs of mutual interest. A recent joint effort with Blessed Sacrament was to bring in Bishop Gumbleton to speak at a showing of the film depicting his work in the civil rights arena. However, this was discouraged by Bishop Cistone, who must give permission for another bishop to speak in his diocese. The affiliate has also sponsored and organized several prayer services, but there has been little interest shown by the local Catholic community.

And so the effort continues – with the help of the Spirit we will keep watching, learning, prodding and prying, hoping to bring about positive change in the church we love.


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