Muller stayed and in February formed a discussion group for parishioners at St. John the Evangelist in Wellesley, Mass. The first two meetings, held in the church basement, drew around 130 parishioners angered by the Church's handling of the scandal and needing somewhere to vent their feelings. Those gatherings, says Muller, became "a turning point for the congregation."
And, quite possibly, for the Catholic Church worldwide. Today Muller's humble idea has quickly given rise to Voice of the Faithful, a formidable grassroots movement with more than 17,400 members in the U.S. and abroad. The group hopes to marshal the energy of frustrated lay people to force real change within a Church in crisis. A pipe dream? Perhaps, but Muller has a better chance at succeeding than most: He cofounded International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which eventually grew to include 150,000 members in more than 60 countries, and in 1985 earned the Nobel Peace Prize. "Jim gives the impression of being a visionary, someone who has a picture of where things should go," says Peggie Thorp, a founding member of Voice. "Something has been unleashed here in Catholics."
But is anybody listening? On May 23 Muller met with Bishop Walter Edyvean, vicar general of the Boston archdiocese, to discuss his group's goals. "My sense is that they are taking us seriously," says Muller, who does research on the prevention of heart attacks at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. As for the bishop, he respects "the right of all faithful to form associations," his spokeswoman recently said. Stephen Pope, head of the theology department at Boston College, says Muller's group has a shot at making a difference. "It's unprecedented that this many people have joined an organization this fast," says Pope. "If Voice can inspire Catholics to take a more active role on the local level, it will change the culture of the Church in a very significant way."
The oldest of seven children raised in Indianapolis by Paul Muller, a respected obstetrician, and Ruth, a social worker, Muller first had his political consciousness raised at Notre Dame, where he studied Russian. As a medical student at Johns Hopkins, he traveled to the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War to meet with officials there. In 1980 he teamed up with other physicians concerned about a nuclear holocaust and organized a meeting in a storeroom above a Boston drug store. The group they formed, International Physicians, helped turn the specter of nuclear war into a mainstream issue.
Years later Muller was similarly horrified after reading about priests abusing children. By the second spirited meeting of his discussion group, "we began to see such dedication and love of the Church," says Muller, "that it looked like International Physicians all over again." To spread the word about his current group's mission—helping abuse victims, honoring good priests and prompting fundamental change—Voice planned a convention of 5,000 members in Boston this July (so far, about 350 parishes in Boston and other cities worldwide have begun forming Voice chapters). "Jim is a great grassroots tactician," says Voice founding member Cathy Fallon, who calls Muller's relentless optimism "almost naive and yet brilliant."
Muller's activism can put a strain on his personal life. "Things are never stale around here," says Kathleen, 59, a psychotherapist (they have three grown children). "There isn't always much time to sit down and relax together. But I'm so interested in this issue myself that I wouldn't call it a cost." In his rare spare time Muller plays tennis and plucks the bass in an admittedly raw-sounding Beatles cover band made up of fellow physicians and Kathleen on the drums.
The music that stirs him most, though, is the rumbling of a mobilized citizenry. "I have a lot of confidence in the will of the people," he says. "When I see things that don't seem right and think we can correct them, that's what motivates me."
Tom Duffy in Boston