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Catholic Church Image Under Fire After Sexual Abuse Scandals - 2002-03-20


A growing scandal involving sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests in the United States has sparked calls for reform of the way the church deals with such cases. Some Catholic worshipers are concerned about way the issue is being handled.

The growing public outcry over incidents of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic clergy began in Boston, Massachusetts. Parishioners and lawmakers there were shocked when they learned that the Church had dealt with cases of abuse by priests by reassigning them to different parishes.

After months of public pressure, Boston Cardinal Bernard Law announced what he called a "zero-tolerance policy." For the first time, he gave prosecutors the names of dozens of priests accused of sexual misconduct over the past 40 years. Ten active priests were suspended. And a defrocked priest, who had been transferred from one parish to another, was convicted of sexual misconduct involving a young boy.

Stephen Pope heads the Theology Department at Boston College, a private institution run by the Catholic Church. He says the public outrage stems from a perceived pattern of cover-ups.

"The biggest shock of this in the last three months since it came out in January is the extent to which the institutional Church in Boston turned a blind eye on children that have been harmed by priests guilty of pedophilia. And [the Church] treated the issue in a matter that did not take care of the suffering and the pain that they went through and their families had gone through with very much seriousness," Mr. Pope says.

Now, the scandal that roiled the Church in Boston is spreading. Catholic Bishops in California, Louisiana and Pennsylvania have reportedly altered the way they handle allegations of abuse.

The story has hit home in New York too, where a priest named in a 1997 lawsuit for allegedly molesting a 17-year-old male parishioner has been discovered working in another Church.

The most powerful U.S. Catholic leader, New York Cardinal Edward Egan, has released a written statement condemning pedophilia. He called sexual abuse of children an "abomination" that is both "immoral and illegal."

But the Cardinal has been under fire since a recent news report showed he failed to take decisive action against accusations of abuse when he was Bishop of Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Professor Pope of Boston College says the Roman Catholic Church is facing a public relations nightmare. "The concern with public relations is a problem, can be a problem for any institution. It does not matter whether it's General Motors or the U.S. Army or the Roman Catholic Church. And there's nothing wrong with that in and of itself. It's only when concern with public relations and public image eclipses justice and compassion that it becomes a problem. And this is clearly a place where this took place," he says.

Mr. Pope says that the allegations have led many parishioners in Boston to take a more active role in their Church.

Meanwhile, worshippers in New York who attend mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral, where Cardinal Egan officiates, say they believe he is handling the matter appropriately. Others express concern.

WORSHIPPER 1: "I have faith in the Cardinal. I think that it's a serious problem. I think the Church is dealing with it the best that it can."

WORSHIPPER 2: "When something like this comes up there should be some concerns. Once again, it has to be looked at in depth."

WORSHIPER 3: "I'm not concerned at all, because I know that God will come through to saving the priests who are so true to him."

Regardless of the outcome, many American Catholics believe that the current scandal has brought to the surface serious questions about how the Church is run.

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