Anger at sexual abuse justified, Keeler says

During Mass homily, issue addressed briefly

March 26, 2002|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Acknowledging that "these are difficult times to be Catholic," Cardinal William H. Keeler told a gathering of priests and lay people last night that they are justified in being angry about the sexual abuse of minors by clergy and lay church workers.

"We are angry when persons in the church, be they priests or teachers or ... lay ministers, abuse children and young people," Keeler said during an annual Mass to bless sacramental oils at the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in North Baltimore.

Keeler's remarks, coming as the church celebrates Holy Week, the most sacred time of the church year, were prompted by a nationwide scandal caused by revelations of sexual misconduct by priests affecting hundreds of victims. Some of the incidents date back three decades. In Baltimore, the last year has seen a priest serving at the Cathedral charged with possessing child pornography, and two lay teachers accused of sexually molesting their students.

"My heart, and I can say all our hearts, ache for those who are victims of abuse. Turning our anger into action will require courage," the cardinal said, addressing the scandal in four paragraphs of a 25-minute homily.

At the same time, Keeler criticized what he called "misunderstandings" of the sex abuse scandal, criticizing those who have questioned the church's adherence to celibacy.

"Priesthood takes a certain kind of courage, especially in the face of misunderstandings so current in our culture," he said. "For example, celibacy is an issue totally unrelated to the sexual abuse of minors: Of such abusers, four out of five, perhaps even more, are married people, abusing other family members."

Defending decisions

Without naming anyone, Keeler also defended church leaders who have been bitterly criticized for transferring offending priests decades ago from one parish to another, where many abused more victims. Those leaders have said they relied on the advice of mental health experts, who told church officials that pedophilia and the sexual abuse of older minors could be successfully treated through psychotherapy and drugs.

"Hindsight helps us to see the damage that was done, but it should also guide us to judge more fairly those who made decisions based on faulty knowledge both about that damage and about the near impossibility of changing course on the part of the offenders," he said.

The Chrism Mass, in which oils used in baptism, confirmation and other anointings are blessed, also is considered an opportunity for priests to recommit themselves to their ministry.

Recognizing that, Keeler sought last night to buoy the spirits of Baltimore's priests. He recalled conversations with Catholic youth who told him "how much good happened in their own lives thanks to priests who believed deeply and cared much for the spiritual good and growth of youth."

Asking the congregation to "pray for our priests," Keeler invited them to show their appreciation through applause. Those in the pews responded with an extended standing ovation.

His priests were gratified by the support.

"Obviously, we've been hit a lot lately by the scandal," said the Rev. Charles M. Wible, associate pastor of St. Joseph parish in Cockeysville. "He acknowledged it's all right to be angry, but we also have to be courageous, to move on, to support victims and to do the right thing."

Foundations `shaken'

Although Keeler's remarks were measured, Baltimore priests are increasingly taking to the pulpit to angrily denounce the actions of their errant colleagues.

"The very foundations of the priesthood have been shaken. For we priests have always seen ourselves as servants of God's people, of all of you who are our friends and companions in the work of the Gospel," the Rev. William J. Watters told his parishioners Sunday at St. Ignatius Roman Catholic Church in Mount Vernon.

"Now these stories of unfaithful brother priests contradict and confound us, leaving us ashamed, wounded, broken and demoralized. How can I or any other priest stand before you in the wake of all that has happened?

"Only with God's grace is it possible to do so," he said. "Only in God's name as I beg for your forgiveness, dare I do so,"

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