Shaken by a succession of disclosures that have led to the indictment of a parish priest and the removal of five others, the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Chicago is undertaking the nation's most extensive inquiry into one of the most painful subjects facing the Catholic Church in the United States: the sexual abuse of minors by priests.
A special commission appointed by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, archbishop of Chicago, is re-examining decades of accusations against these and other priests amid evidence that the church's safeguards against abuse are insufficient despite strengthening in recent years.
The panel's three members, including a judge and a social services official from outside the church bureaucracy, are expected to complete their report in the spring. Many church leaders hope that it will set a standard for the entire country.
Nobody knows the extent of sexual abuse of minors by priests, in Chicago or elsewhere. Experts agree that the offenders make up a tiny fraction of the nation's 53,000 priests and that the overall numbers are probably no higher than in other professions in which men work closely with children and adolescents.
Until the mid-1980s, complaints of sexual abuse seldom received any public airing. The Catholic Church's internal organization, where decisions are often made behind closed doors, enabled church officials to brush aside accusations of sexual abuse out of naivete or fear of publicity.
"Pedophilia is the S&L disaster of the Catholic Church," said the Rev. Andrew M. Greeley, a Chicago priest who is also a sociologist and novelist; he has long prodded Cardinal Bernardin in newspaper columns to take resolute action on the issue. "The more that comes out, the worse it looks, and you begin to wonder if there's ever going to be an end to the mess."
The reality of child sexual abuse has hit home to many church officials around the nation, often in the form of devastating lawsuits and angry parishioners. Bishops have been revising what they acknowledge were naive assumptions about clerical child molesters and defensive attitudes toward their accusers.
Today, virtually all dioceses have adopted new policies to weed out abusers and extend help to victims and their families.
Disclosures last October at St. Odilo's parish in Berwyn, outside Chicago, set off the current inquiry. The series of events left Cardinal Bernardin abashed and may have a national effect on the way the church approaches the issue.
Parishioners at St. Odilo's learned that the Rev. Robert E. Mayer, who had quietly left the parish in July, had been accused of sexual misconduct with a 20-year-old man.
Then the parents of a 14-year-old girl, an eighth grader at the parish school, said Father Mayer had molested her as well, charges on which the Chicago priest was eventually indicted. In January, he pleaded not guilty and now faces trial.