Scandal leads to questions about priesthood

Faithful demoralized

leaders' authority at risk

March 17, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

By Tuesday, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Portland, Maine, has promised to turn over to local prosecutors a file containing all accusations of sexual misconduct involving its priests. The district attorney wants to see every accusation made against a living priest.

"Even if it was triple hearsay, let me decide," said Stephanie Anderson, district attorney of Cumberland County, who said she intended to follow the priests' parish transfers in search of victims.

The sexual abuse scandal engulfing the Roman Catholic Church, far from being nearly over, has only begun.

In the latest development, The Hartford Courant reported yesterday that secret court documents reveal that New York Cardinal Edward M. Egan, while serving as bishop of the Bridgeport Roman Catholic Diocese, allowed several priests facing multiple accusations of sexual abuse to continue working for years -- including one who admitted biting a teen-ager during oral sex.

Egan failed to investigate aggressively some abuse allegations, did not refer complaints to criminal authorities and, during closed testimony in 1999, suggested that a dozen people who made complaints of rape, molestation and beatings against the same priest might have all been lying, the documents show.

Across the country, to restore credibility, one diocese after another is volunteering to turn over its records to prosecutors. The publicity is emboldening more people to step forward with accusations of sexual abuse.

The scandal has traumatized the church's faithful, demoralized the clergy and threatened the moral authority of its bishops. It has removed dozens of priests and tarnished one of the nation's pre-eminent prelates, Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston.

From schools of theology to dining-room tables, a growing number of Catholics are questioning the bedrock on which the church is built -- the all-male, celibate priesthood. Parishioners are calling for open dialogue and debate about a tenet that Pope John Paul II has said is closed for discussion.

In a startling step, the official Catholic newspaper of the Archdiocese of Boston said in an editorial Friday that the Catholic Church must confront questions and commission studies about whether the celibate, unmarried, all-male priesthood should be continued.

The church is at risk of losing some of the legal protections that have shielded it from criminal prosecution in the United States. Its moral authority on issues such as the death penalty, social justice and the status of Jerusalem is also in peril.

Financially, a church widely perceived as wealthy is scraping to pay multimillion-dollar settlements to the victims of its priests. Insurance has not been sufficient to cover the settlements. So some dioceses have been forced to borrow from one another, beg from major donors or sell property.

The most serious danger to the church, and the most difficult to measure, is disaffection among believers.

Many Catholics say they could no more leave their faith than leave their families. But distrust of the church hierarchy could drive some to abandon the church.

Peggy Morales, who lives in East Harlem, N.Y., sends her children to parochial school and attends Mass on Sunday, said she was having second thoughts about a weekly habit ingrained since childhood.

"I always said going to church was setting the right example for my kids," she said. "Now I am just so glad my son has never been an altar boy."

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