The front line of the clergy sex-abuse scandal might be a Philadelphia courtroom, where four current and former priests are expected to fight charges that they molested boys or covered up attacks.

But bubbling below is another battle, the war of words between national groups of lay Catholics, some defending the church and others harshly critical of its response to the abuse crisis.

Both sides say the Philadelphia arrests and the scathing grand jury report released at the same time have stirred new passions in the debate.

"The Philly thing has woken up the dead," said Bill Donohue, president of the New York-based Catholic League, a vocal supporter of the church. "They feel like they got another life in them."

Nancy Mortimer O'Brien, spokeswoman for the Philadelphia chapter of Voice of the Faithful, would not disagree.

After its membership had dwindled in recent years, her group, a Catholic lay organization that seeks widespread change in the church, drew 200 people to a March meeting in Chestnut Hill and double the donations of its previous fund-raiser.

"A couple of years ago we were meeting and wondering if we should forget about it," said O'Brien, a Lafayette Hill resident. "We're certainly not forgetting about it now."

The two sides clashed last week over a survey that the Voice of the Faithful sent in April to 881 Philadelphia-area priests.

The group said it had wanted to support "priests of integrity" and asked the clerics to anonymously support state legislation to abolish a statute of limitations for child sex abuse and open a two-year window to let any past victim sue, a step that could lead to an avalanche of lawsuits.

Donna Farrell, spokeswoman for the Philadelphia Archdiocese, said officials there had heard about the letter from a priest but took no position. "The guidance we offered was to make his own determination. There was no predetermined response from the archdiocese," she said.

Donohue, whose group is independent, did not sit still. He pounded out a news release lambasting the survey as "bogus" and engineered by "dissidents" seeking to claim few Philadelphia priests had integrity. "This is a setup," he said.

Almost as quickly, Voice of the Faithful fired back, accusing the Catholic League of distorting its intent and mischaracterizing the grand jury report. "The Catholic League would better serve Catholics in Philadelphia and around the world by focusing on the truth," it said.

The flare-up was the latest example of the ripple effect from the grand jury's findings that the archdiocese had fallen short in its efforts to expel abusive priests and respond to victims.

Joe Maher, who runs a Opus Bono Sacerdotii, a Detroit nonprofit legal-defense and support network for accused priests, said he had noticed an increase in calls since 21 Philadelphia-area priests were suspended in March over past allegations of abuse or misconduct around minors.

"What's happened in Philadelphia has called attention to the fact that there are innocent priests who've been thrown under the bridge," said Maher, who plans to meet this week with some of the suspended priests.

David Clohessy, the national director for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said the grand jury report had reinvigorated his group. On Sunday, SNAP supporters were scheduled to rally in 50 U.S. cities, twice the turnout he might have expected a year or two ago.

"To be honest, since like 2003-04, it's been harder to motivate folks," Clohessy said.

Traffic to the website of a Boston activist group,, hit an eight-year high March 9, when The Inquirer and other news outlets named the 21 priests, cofounder Anne Barrett Doyle said.

"I've spoken to two lay groups here in the Boston Archdiocese since the Philly grand jury report came out," she said. "And what I am seeing is a level of moral outrage among lay Catholics that I don't recall previously."

Church defenders are also marshaling their forces, Donohue said. Three weeks ago, he placed an advertisement in the New York Times attacking "those who are distorting the truth about priestly sexual abuse." One supporter, he said, offered to pay for a reprint in a Chicago newspaper. And $100,000 in donations poured in.

"We have resources in the Catholic League," he said, "and I'm going to spend it."

Donohue conceded that abuse had occurred, but he said that most cases were long outdated and that the church had taken the right steps to protect children. The latest criticism, he said, stems from "angry, old Catholics" who failed in previous efforts to influence church matters and are seizing a new chance to attack its leaders.

"We can't resolve every injustice in the Catholic Church that goes back decades," Donohue said.

Undeterred by the criticism, Voice of the Faithful released its survey results: Only 165 of the 881 replied to the letters. Of them, 114, more than two-thirds, said they opposed lifting the statute of limitations. Thirty-eight priests backed the legislation.

"This result is a far cry from what we had anticipated," Voice of the Faithful said in a statement, "and we are shocked by it."

Contact staff writer John P. Martin at 215-854-4774 or