Traditionalists protest Religious Education Congress
By TOM KISKEN
As 20,000 Roman Catholics worshipped and studied inside the Anaheim, Calif., Convention Center in March, Adria Laubacher protested outside with a hand-made sign that read "God Loves Us Simple People."
Laubacher, 72, sees herself as a defender of true Roman Catholicism. Each year, the advent of the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress spurs her to trek southward from her house in Oxnard, Calif.
She and other gray-haired rebels fill vans with their signs referring to the innocence of children and alleged sins of the speakers inside.
"Sexologists Disguised as Religious?" reads one placard, referring to a speaker Laubacher claims is a sex therapist and therefore should not be at the educational congress counseling catechism teachers. Other speakers at the podiums, the protesters say, are heretics with liberal ideas about women as priests, sexual relations and, perhaps worst of all, changing sacred moments of the Mass.
The slurs, roundly ridiculed by a congress organizer, are a mere drizzle in a blizzard of complaints. Sign-bearers rail on about everything from the modern architecture of the planned cathedral in Los Angeles to the way some Roman Catholic schools deal with sex education. The archdiocese, they say, is swerving dangerously far from the Vatican.
The Defenders of the Faith, as Laubacher calls her small band, and similar protest groups with comparable names are outnumbered by a ratio of 1 to 1,000 by the Roman Catholics who attended the congress in March. Laubacher, a veteran of these protests, says she's used to such David and Goliath battles.
But for others, the demonstrations inspire so much anxiety that they steel their nerves by reciting the Rosary.
"It's a very humbling experience," said Melva Ramirez, a homemaker who protested with Laubacher. "They call us fanatics. There are times when we almost get discouraged. But you have to go there and stand up for Jesus."
The congress is held for Roman Catholic educators around the world, offering them ways to improve their lessons and uplift their souls. Speakers dole out advice on updating confirmation classes and helping people who have had an abortion deal with the emotions of the aftermath.
Coordinator Adrian Whitaker has helped the Archdiocese of Los Angeles orchestrate the event for 14 years. Talk to her about the band of traditionalists protesting outside the convention center and you come away with an image of mosquitoes circling their target.
The protesters' claims that Sister Fran Ferder, who spoke at the congress about the sanctity of the Sabbath, is a sexologist are plain wrong, Whitaker said. Ferder is a Seattle clinical psychologist whose practice includes, but is not limited to, the therapy of sexual abuse victims.
All speakers are approved by Cardinal Roger Mahony and the idea that anyone at the congress is spouting heresy is, well, a joke.
"I flat-out laugh at that," said Whitaker, who has been targeted by protesters with calls for her resignation. "I think that's just an uncalled-for remark."
The mosquitoes do sting. Five years ago, during a deluge of complaints about a scheduled congress speaker's stance as an abortion rights activist, Mahony revoked the former priest's invitation and said he wouldn't abide any sentiments contrary to church teachings.
The signs and protests may have hit their mark again last year when the cardinal was quoted referring to the demonstrators as "simple people who have no impact."
That crack inspired Laubacher's new "God Loves Us Simple People" sign and hit her as a confirmation of her group's impact.
Before the cardinal's statement, "I had received a threat of a lawsuit from Sister Pendergast," Laubacher said, referring to another congress organizer. "If we're of no concern, why would they threaten to sue us?"
(Tom Kisken writes for the Ventura County Star in California.)
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