- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 21, 2002

U.S. Catholics are taking in the daily news headlines about sexual abuse in the church with stoic patience, waiting to see what action the hierarchy takes and worrying about the reputation of good priests.
In dioceses where the scandal is bubbling, some Catholics are calling for resignations. In others, they are marching in support.
"Many Catholics are feeling they have to answer the embarassing questions of friends and neighbors, and they don't want to," said James Davidson of Perdue University, a researcher on Catholic demographics and opinion. "There are dioceses that have had no sexual-abuse episodes. There are others that have had many."
Pope John Paul II yesterday told Nigerian bishops that priests must lead celibate lives and avoid scandalous behavior. The pope's message comes before a summit with American cardinals on Tuesday and Wednesday to discuss the sex-abuse scandal in the U.S. church. Bishops, he said, must investigate such behavior and take action to end it.
Meanwhile, New York Cardinal Edward Egan wrote in a letter to parishioners yesterday that he apologizes "if, in hindsight," he made mistakes in handling sex-abuse accusations against priests. Cardinal Egan came under fire for his actions as bishop of Bridgeport, Conn. prompting some parishioners to demand that he step down.
A poll released by the Boston Globe and WBZ-TV last week showed that 65 percent of Catholics in the Archdiocese of Boston, the storm center of the scandal, want Cardinal Bernard F. Law to resign. Seven in 10 believed he had "done a poor job" in handling the crisis.
Boston court papers showed in January that the cardinal knew of a pedophile priest who was moved from parish to parish after complaints were made. The cardinal gave authorities 80 names of clerics who were the subjects of abuse complaints.
Cardinal Law returned from Rome on Tuesday determined not to step down. "My desire is to serve the archdiocese and the whole church with every fiber of my being," he said.
Here in Washington, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who also met with John Paul, said the pontiff was concerned that American Catholics were "losing their confidence, they are being scandalized."
He emphasized that just 35 priests out of 21,000 who have served in the Boston area in the past 50 years or 1.6 percent had "credibly been accused of this crime." This was a low rate of wrongdoing for any profession. "We can all do the math," he said.
Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony, whose archdiocese suffered only a small number of accusations, has become a national voice as the senior Cardinal Law is beseiged. Last Saturday, 3,000 Catholics marched through downtown Los Angeles in support of their church.
"In my own experience, we view this with deep sorrow and shame," said Rebecca Teti, who with her husband, Dennis, and three children attend St. Jerome parish in Hyattsville, and whose anguish may be typical of Catholics in the Washington area. "Every day, practically, there's another headline and more people asking questions. The onslaught feels perpetual."
Informed Catholics, she said, know that their faith is in more than an institution, and that even greater scandals have rocked Catholicism over history when a small segment of priests behaved badly.
"Since such a tiny percentage are involved, at our parish we feel even closer to our pastor; we feel something good will come of this," Mrs. Teti said. "Certain crimes do cry out to heaven. But day after day, the [news] stories don't seem fair."
Last week, John Paul summoned the U.S. cardinals to Rome to consider the sexual-abuse scandal, which the U.S. bishops began to address in 1985, when the first pedophilia case came to light in a lawsuit.
In June, the bishops will assemble in Dallas for their midyear meeting and consider whether a national policy may be necessary, even though each diocese is independent of others and beholden only to the Holy See in Rome.
Some Catholics are waiting to see how the bishops deal with their own complicity in covering up some abuse cases.
"The devout in our parish love the faith, and they love their priest," said a member of St. Patrick's parish in Spotsylvania, Va. "But they feel the hierarchy has not protected the flock."
Opinion polls taken in recent weeks show that U.S. Catholics, who in majorities long have shown openness to the idea of married priests, are particularly hard on their leadership for the present crisis.
In a Newsweek poll, 74 percent of Catholics said the church has been "too lenient" with sexually abusive priests.
A Harris poll for Time/CNN last month found that 60 percent of Catholics said the church leadership handled the cases either "fairly" or "very" poorly. While half of Catholics said the abuse problem was "isolated," four in 10 said it was "part of a pattern of abuse" in the priesthood.
What is more, 86 percent told the Harris poll that bishops who covered up the abuse or allowed it to continue "should step down."
Catholic commentators noted that while the headlines have been massive since mid-January, the cases in question date primarily from the 1960s and 1970s.
By 1985, the bishops began to crack down on the problem, and in 1992 established guidelines to screen priest recruits, to monitor priests with complaints lodged against them, and to work with police.
Mr. Davidson said that the scandal shows Americans just how decentralized the Catholic Church is, and how even a meeting in Rome does not guarantee a quick, top-down cleanup of the problem. "We are realizing how independent each diocese is," he said.
Meanwhile, the more polarized traditionalists and liberals in the church are pointing to the abuse problem as evidence of their prescriptions of recent decades.
"The conservatives are saying, 'This is an indication that we should limit access to the priesthood by homosexuals,'" Mr. Davidson said. "The left says, 'This shows that celibacy should go and we need a married priesthood.'"
Even when the legal cases are settled and abusive priests purged, the issue will linger for these vying groups in American Catholicism, he said. "This means the issue is not going to go away soon."

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