DALLAS -- Roman Catholic parishioners in Dallas -- fed up with the fallout from the clerical sex abuse crisis -- have taken the rare step of starting a petition drive that urges their bishop to resign.
The Committee of Concerned Catholics' effort to get Bishop Charles Grahmann to step down offers another example of how the 19-month national scandal has made American Catholics more willing to confront their spiritual leaders.
"We haven't been able to resolve the past in a way that permits us to focus on the future," said lawyer William McCormack, an organizer of the petition drive. "This diocese has many needs that are going unfulfilled: building a new Catholic high school, fixing the cathedral, saving our four city schools."
Grahmann, Dallas bishop since 1990, has come under fire in recent months for backing three priests accused of sexual misconduct. And many still find fault with his handling of notorious ex-priest Rudy Kos, who molested minors in three parishes from 1981 to 1992.
So far, more than 1,200 Catholics -- a fraction of the diocese's roughly 800,000 total parishioners -- have signed the online petition, which cites "embarrassment, lack of leadership and financial peril" suffered by the diocese under Grahmann.
His obvious replacement would be Bishop Joseph Galante, who was named coadjutor, or designated successor, more than three years ago.
Galante publicly disagreed with Grahmann after he refused to remove a priest who allegedly groped and propositioned a parishioner in 1991. Such an open rift is a rarity in the church hierarchy, suggesting Galante's dissatisfaction with his position. Galante, who has suggested he may be transferred to another diocese, is on vacation until August and was unavailable for comment, his office said.
Supporters of the bishop, meanwhile, have collected their own signatures: more than 8,000, according to a pro-Grahmann Web site. Whether those signatures represent support for Grahmann -- or simply for Catholic doctrine -- is a matter of dispute.
For his part, Grahmann has relied on a spokesman to dismiss his critics as malcontents with ulterior motives, though many have served in top leadership roles with various Catholic charities and schools.
"In the orthodox teaching of the Catholic Church, the bishop is appointed by the Holy Father, the pope, not to be subject to the whims, pressures, politics or self-interest of anyone," the spokesman, Bronson Havard, wrote in an editorial in the diocesan newspaper.
Some parishioners find themselves in the middle.
"I think there are a small group of people on either side of this issue that are really plugged into it," said Matthew Wilson, a law professor who attends St. Joseph Catholic Church in suburban Richardson.
A jury in 1997 awarded a $119.6-million verdict to victims suing the diocese for covering up years of abuse by Kos, though the case was later settled for about $31 million. Grahmann said he removed Kos in 1992, as soon as a victim came forward, but the jury heard evidence that the diocese had received complaints about the priest long before his removal.
Years later, the specter of clerical sex abuse still haunts the diocese, despite the bishop's claims that he developed a model safe-environment program for parishes and schools.
McCormack acknowledged that Grahmann is a good man, "maybe even a holy man."
But at a time when the diocese should be raising money for improvements and reaching out to a huge influx of Hispanic immigrants, it's focused instead on damage control, say leaders of Concerned Catholics, which includes about 35 business people, lawyers, civic activists and philanthropists. The only way out is for Grahmann to go, they say.
Grahmann isn't required to submit his resignation to the Vatican until he turns 75, about three years away. Some parishioners, including McCormack, claim Grahmann reached a secret deal to quit before Galante's arrival but later reneged.
At least in the short term, the petition could solidify Grahmann's standing with the church hierarchy. "Rome appears to bend over backward not to appear to yield to any kind of outside pressure," said Charles Wilson, founder and executive director of the Saint Joseph Foundation in San Antonio, which works to protect the rights of the laity.
Still, the Dallas movement is one more sign parishioners want a greater role governing the church during a year in which the new lay group Voice of the Faithful gained thousands of members, and -- earlier this month -- top bishops met privately with prominent lay Catholics.
"Historically, it has taken an awful lot to convince American Catholics to turn on their bishops," said John Allen Jr., Vatican correspondent for the independent National Catholic Reporter. "Obviously, you have a Catholic laity in the United States that is unusually activist in the wake of this crisis."