When the Detroit police arrested one of his parish priests on rape charges, Joe Maher did not think twice. He drove to the Wayne County Jail and paid the $5,000 bail. Then he set about finding a top-notch lawyer and raising money to mount a vigorous defense.
On Aug. 30, a Michigan jury acquitted the priest, allowing him to resume his calling and inspiring Maher to answer a new one. Quitting his job as a financial analyst, Maher, 42, founded a nonprofit group named Opus Bono Sacerdotii -- Latin for "Work for the Good of the Priesthood" -- to help pay the legal expenses of Roman Catholic clergymen accused of sex crimes.
Opus Bono Sacerdotii is one of many groups of Catholic laity and clergy that have sprung up this year to defend the rights of priests and to oppose calls for deep changes in the church. Though their agendas vary, they represent a growing backlash against the "zero tolerance" policy adopted by America's bishops to combat the scandal over clergy sex abuse.
"Somebody's got to stand up for these priests, and if the bishops aren't going to do it, I'm doing it," Maher said.
Some of the groups are alarmed by what they view as opportunistic attempts by Catholic liberals to use the scandal to press for far-reaching innovations, such as allowing married priests, ordaining women and democratizing the governance of the church.
"Catholicism is a fiat. It's not a democracy. We don't decide what's right and wrong by a two-thirds vote," said Carol M. McKinley, spokeswoman for the Massachusetts-based group Faithful Voice.
When the scandal began in Boston in January with allegations that Cardinal Bernard Law and five of his bishops had shifted pedophile priests from parish to parish, liberal groups were the first to organize and to speak out. Now, the opposing, traditionalist camp is making itself heard -- not only in the United States but also in Rome.
Vatican officials said last week they are circulating a draft policy that would bar gay men from becoming priests, a position long endorsed by conservatives in the church. Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is in Rome this week to discuss the Vatican's response to the sexual abuse policy established by the American bishops in Dallas in June.
Experts in canon law, the church's internal legal code, predict the Vatican will express serious misgivings and ask for changes in the policy or approve it only on an experimental basis.
"From the very beginning, so-called conservative Catholics had doubts about this policy," said Deal W. Hudson, editor of the Catholic magazine Crisis. But what has upset many parishes, he said, is the way it has been carried out, with the sudden removal this year of more than 300 priests, often on allegations that are decades old.
"We've seen a kind of blanket removal of people who were at least in the gray area. And there seems to be no benefit of the doubt given to the clergy, and that has created this backlash," Hudson said.
In New York City, about 150 current and former priests met this month to form Voice of the Ordained. The group is dedicated to upholding the rights of accused priests to due process under civil and canon law.
"Ordained ministers of the gospel are a group very much at risk at the moment. Given the norms approved in Dallas, anyone can make any kind of accusation against us and we're dead meat," said the Rev. John Duffell, pastor of the Roman Catholic Church of the Ascension in Manhattan and an organizer of the group.
Duffell emphasized that Voice of the Ordained also believes in justice for victims of sexual abuse. "We're very much concerned about the victims. I think most priests are," he said.
But a leading victims group, the Chicago-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said it was troubled that no victims were invited to address Voice of the Ordained's first meeting and that one of the speakers, a canon lawyer, advised the group's members not to say anything, even to their bishops, if they are accused of sexual misconduct.
"These well-meaning men should keep their priorities straight," said Mark Serrano, a leader of the Survivors Network. "This horrific sex abuse scandal has hurt everyone in the church, but the protection of children and the healing of victims must always come first."
Across the country, canon lawyers are playing an important role in the opposition to the Dallas policy. Many members of the Canon Law Society of America were fiercely critical of the policy at a convention in Cincinnati last week.
Monsignor Thomas Green, a professor of canon law at Catholic University, has circulated a 5,000-word critique. It suggests the bishops accepted an overly broad definition of sexual abuse, disregarded the statute of limitations on abuse allegations in church law and applied a severe penalty -- permanent removal from ministry -- without leaving room to weigh the specifics of each case.
In Massachusetts, the Boston Priests Forum, a clergy group, has been working to protect the rights of accused priests. And 77 priests in the diocese of Worcester signed a letter to the Vatican detailing their complaints about the Dallas policy.
Faithful Voice, a lay group, was formed in the Boston area this year to support Law and to oppose Voice of the Faithful, Call to Action, Women's Ordination Conference and other organizations seeking fundamental changes in the church. It has prodded at least five bishops to bar the rival Voice of the Faithful from using church facilities in their dioceses.
"Please don't make us into supporters of pedophiles," said McKinley, Faithful Voice's spokeswoman. "We want to see the victims helped, we want to see them healed, we want to see justice come to them. I don't see any difference between us and Voice of the Faithful in our view of the sex abuse scandal. The difference really is, they see this as a cause for structural change. We don't."
In Detroit, Maher said he does not attempt to determine whether a priest is innocent or guilty before providing financial help from Opus Bono Sacerdotii. The group, which he said has raised $100,000 and applied to the Internal Revenue Service for charitable status, is assisting the Rev. Robert Burkholder, who returned to Michigan from retirement in Hawaii this month to face charges of molesting a 13-year-old boy in 1986.
In an interview published by the Detroit News in August, Burkholder, 82, admitted that he had had sexual encounters with "maybe a dozen or two" boys between the ages of 11 and 14, but contended that they were consensual. "It takes two to tango," he said. "Some of the accusations are true, but so what? I was a priest -- a good priest -- who had a weakness."
Maher said he never doubted the innocence of the first priest he defended, the Rev. Komlan Dem Houndjame. A refugee from Togo, he was a visiting priest-in-residence at Maher's Assumption Grotto Church.
Houndjame, 47, was arrested in April on charges of raping a woman who sang in the church choir. He was acquitted after a friend of the woman testified that she had acted "catty" with Houndjame on the night of the alleged assault. The judge ruled that the jury could not hear testimony that Houndjame had made unwanted sexual advances toward two other women.
"Like most Catholics, I'm very concerned that if a priest has done something, he has to be removed so he doesn't do it again," Maher said. "But if he's repented and reformed his life and there's no evidence of any other impropriety, that's a different story. People make mistakes, some worse than others."