BOSTON -- At its first national meeting Saturday, a non-clergy reform group born out of the Roman Catholic priest sex abuse scandal called for drastic changes in the way the church is governed.
An estimated 4,000 Voice of the Faithful members from 35 states and seven foreign countries signed a petition urging Pope John Paul II to endorse reform policies that U.S. bishops approved in June.
In a statement, the group vowed to find ways for lay Catholics to "actively participate in the governance and guidance of the Catholic Church."
Included among proposals under discussion were policy-making power for lay church members, and giving parishioners a role in the appointment of bishops and pastors.
The Rev. Thomas Doyle, keynote speaker and an Air Force chaplain in Germany, said the abuse scandal resulted from "the delusion that the clergy are somehow above the rest," as well as some clergymen's "unbridled addiction to power."
The word "democracy" strikes fear in many clergy, he said, but ordinary lay Catholics need to shed "timidity or fearful deference to the very structures that have betrayed us."
Catholics must also "stop enabling through financial support the power structures" responsible for the "horrific consequences" of the scandal and cover-ups, he said.
Panelists at the meeting included Thomas Arens of Germany, an organizer of a petition drive in the mid-1990s urging the Church to accept married priests and women priests, and lay theologian Lisa Sowle Cahill of Boston College.
Although the group has not called for Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law to resign, participants were planning a procession later Saturday to the cathedral to express their unity and solidarity with victims of abuse by priests.
Law has come under intense criticism for allegedly allowing abusive priests to keep getting new assignments in parishes that were not warned of the priest's prior conduct.
Since February, the reform group says it has attracted 19,000 supporters, forming chapters in 68 parishes around the nation, half of them in Massachusetts.
Voice is "the fastest growing Catholic lay organization in the world," James E. Post, a professor at Boston University and the group's president, said in an interview.
James Muller, cardiology research director at Massachusetts General Hospital, said he helped launch Voice out of the belief that "I must either attempt to correct these deep structural defects or leave the Catholic Church."