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Catholic Leaders Respond to Sexual Scandal - 2002-03-27

American Catholics have reacted with shock and anger to revelations of sexual abuse of youngsters by priests. Prominent U.S. Catholic leaders have issued apologies. The latest comes from the head of the largest Catholic archdiocese in the United States.

Acknowledging that his church's credibility has been damaged, Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles promised a zero-tolerance policy toward priests and other church workers involved in child abuse. The cardinal issued a public apology during a special service for 300 local clergymen. With allegations of child abuse emerging almost weekly, the official worries the church may not have put the scandal behind it.

"I fear that we may have still missed someone in ministry - priest, religious, a deacon or lay person - who has abused a child or youth despite our proactive efforts," said Cardinal Mahony.

Sunday, Catholics celebrated Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week leading up to Easter. A number of Catholic bishops followed the lead of the pope, who spoke out last week about what he called the "shadow of suspicion" over the Catholic clergy.

In Denver, priests read aloud a letter of apology from their archbishop. In Chicago, Houston and elsewhere, Catholics received leaflets discussing the allegations.

In New York, Cardinal Edward Egan called for a "purification of the church." But Cardinal Egan is himself the subject of criticism. In a previous post in Connecticut, he was accused of not notifying authorities about abusive priests and of letting abusers continue to work in parishes.

The allegations concern a small number of the nearly 50,000 Catholic priests in the United States. The scandal erupted in January after documents showed that a former priest in Boston was moved from parish to parish amid continuing allegations of sexual abuse.

Dozens of priests have been removed from their parishes, and a Florida bishop was the highest-ranked clergyman to resign in the scandal. He admitted that in a previous post, he molested a teenaged student.

In recent weeks, Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony has removed an undisclosed number of priests because of cases involving child abuse in their past. News reports say between six and a dozen priests were forced into retirement. The church leader refused to name them, citing concerns over the privacy of their victims.

"These are all past cases that have been dealt with by the police, sometimes the court system, sometimes they've been in jail," said Cardinal Mahony. "I mean, it's all past history."

The refusal to name names has been criticized by the lawyer for a molestation victim who won a $5 million settlement from the Los Angeles archdiocese last year. At the time of the molestation, the victim was a student at a Los Angeles Catholic high school.

However, one woman who attended Cardinal Mahony's special service was pleased with his response to the crisis. "I'm glad that he did address us, the parishioners, and he addressed his priests," she said. "And I have complete faith that the Church will withstand whatever is going on."

A joint poll by CNN, USA Today and the Gallup organization says more than 70 percent of American Catholics believe their leaders have handled the scandal poorly. And three-quarters would like to see a change in the rule preventing Roman Catholic priests from marrying.

Catholic officials, including Cardinal Mahony, say the requirement of priestly celibacy is not related to child abuse. Cardinal Mahony says child abuse is a problem in the general population and that many abusers are married men. However, he says the question of marriage and the priesthood is open to discussion.

Another recent poll found, despite the scandal, three-quarters of U.S. Catholics still accept their church's authority on matters of faith and morals. A similar number say the scandal will not affect their church attendance.