By Elizabeth E. Evans for Reuters, FaithWorld, April 8, 2011
Three seemingly unrelated events – and Susan Matthews found herself at a crossroads.
Reading a letter to the editor assailing the “apathy” of local Catholics… Recollecting an essay she had written when the first grand jury report dealt her family a personal blow… Overhearing a conversation between two older women critical of the victims of an accused priest.
It was, as Matthews wryly recalls now, this ‘trifecta” that impelled her to act. Outraged at the predator priest scandal that has overtaken the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, the Huntingdon Valley resident and mother of two started a blog, Catholics4Change.com.
In February, a grand jury report alleged that as many as 37 local Catholic priests were left in parishes in spite of “credible” abuse allegations. Since then 26 priests have been suspended for allegations or abuse or other boundary violations, two as recently as last week.
In the little more than a month, Catholics4Change (which has close to 25,000 hits within the past two weeks) has become a rallying point for local believers. And Matthews (a former editor of the archdiocesan paper currently a freelance writer and QVC guest host) and another aspiring reformer, Kathy Kane, have become the center of a lively and impassioned debate that goes beyond protecting children but to holding church hierarchs accountable.
“Just because Jesus was the Good Shepherd, doesn’t mean that we need to behave like sheep” Matthews said.
When asked about Philadelphia Cardinal Justin Rigali, Matthews was scathing, saying that he was accountable for what occurred on his watch whether or not he knew what was going on. “I would like the Cardinal to have the courage to meet with congregant’s face to face, and not have it so heavily managed by P.R. people,” she said. “I would like him to admit fault and seek real change.”
Thanks to a commentary in the Philadelphia Inquirer, appearances on a local television station and a radio talk show, Matthews and Kane have become, to some extent, the public face of area Catholic parents.
“We are a dime a dozen,” said Kane. “I don’t know anyone out there who doesn’t find this a painful situation.”
A former social worker, Kane was spurred by a requirement that her child attend a mandatory overnight sports camp (required to maintain full membership in the parish-sponsored sports program) to seek a change in diocesan policy. With the help of diocesan employees, she says, she was able to get the regulation changed – now no overnight is mandatory.
While the diocese has an anti-abuse program for those working with children, Safe Environment, Kane would like to see a charter that includes practical rules for parish and diocese-sponsored outings and overnights. Kane, Matthews and other local Catholics are getting behind legislationin the Pennsylvania capital Harrisburg to abolish the statute of limitations on child abuse.
In an archdiocese long known for its conservative leanings, clericalism and close ties to Rome, such calls for reform could be considered tantamount to revolution.
But neither Matthews nor Kane, who both have children in parochial schools and are active in their local parishes, view themselves as zealots. Instead, said Matthews, she believes that it’s time for laypeople to have more of a voice in the way the church is run.
“They have written off a lot of people as leftist radicals,” said Matthews. “I’m going to work very hard not to be categorized that way.” Sympathetic to local clergy who find themselves under suspicion, Matthews holds the diocese responsible for a situation in which parents are “sitting in the congregation wondering if their priest is a pedophile.”
In the wake of the first wave of dismissals occasioned by the release of the first grand jury report in 2005, Matthew’s husband, Damian Dachowski, learned that Peter Dunne, a family friend and priest who had taken him and his brothers on camping trips, was an accused pedophile.
Last week, she found out that an old friend and former editor at her old workplace, the Catholic Standard & Times, David Givey, had been placed on administrative leave by Rigali for unspecified reasons. “As for Fr. Dave, I have no idea what the allegations are,” said Matthews. “I don’t want to speculate. But that’s what the archdiocese has caused so many to do in regard to the priests in our lives.”
Matthews is preparing a packet of questions for Rigali, collected from her readers, to be delivered this week by certified mail. But real change has to start at the top, she added. “Our leadership in Rome has to decide to allow a bigger, more important role for lay people in leadership, within the context of our doctrine…not a pretend one with empty titles.”