How abuse scandals are playing in Catholic pews

Disenchanted parishioners donate less money, and a growing number want to rethink celibate priesthood.

The morning mass here at St. Joseph's Church on a February weekday is chilly - the Roman Catholic parishioners kneel buttoned up in thick overcoats in the dim light of the suburban church.

But the chill in their daily spiritual constitutional is more palpable these days as - like millions of other Catholics - their trust in church leaders is being sorely tested. The parish priest Rev. Daniel Graham was removed from his post last week - a casualty in a broadening child sex abuse scandal that church leadership now acknowledges it knew of for decades.

In gauging the effects of the scandal - from the hard parish pew to the cushioned seats of Vatican power - the National Review magazine, this week, called it "an ecclesiastical Enron" in its parallels of wounded public trust and dire financial and political implications for the church.

Individual civil lawsuits against priests and archdiocese around the US have troubled the Church since the mid-1980s. But the past month of developments in Boston - precipitated by the conviction of defrocked priest John J. Geoghan for indecent assault of a 10-year-old boy - has deepened the crisis.

"People do give the church every benefit of the doubt," says Chester Gillis, a theology professor at Georgetown University. "But some will lose confidence in the leadership as these things become public."

This very Catholic Boston metropolitan region - an archdiocese of 2 million believers - could be considered the new 'ground zero' in the Church's pedophilia problem.

Cardinal Law acknowledged last month he knew Geoghan had been removed from two parishes due to allegations of abusing children but still approved his reassignment to another church.

Under pressure from lawmakers and prosecutors, Church authorities have since provided law enforcement officials with the names of at least 80 other current and former priests accused of abuse in the past several decades.

Last week alone, the Boston archdiocese suspended eight priests who were previously accused of sexual abuse. St. Joseph's Graham, one of the eight, had a single allegation of abuse three decades ago listed in his file, reported the Associated Press. He was never charged.

The last month of revelations is taking a heavy toll on local Catholics. "It's just devastating," says Thomas Groome, a religious education professor at Boston College. "The Boston Catholic community will never be the same again."

Disenchanted parishioners say they're donating less money to their parishes and a majority now want the Church to rethink the whole notion of a celibate priesthood, a Boston Globe survey found.

Boston isn't the first city where multiple Catholic priests have been accused of sexually abusing children. In the last 15 years, the Catholic Church quietly settled suits brought by hundreds of victims who alleged they were abused as children. Earlier this month, for example, the Tucson, Ariz. archdiocese settled a case against four priests accused of molesting nine altar boys.

What makes the Boston cases unique, observers say, is that Law, one of American Catholicism's most conservative leaders and a close confidant to the Pope, is being forced to publicly acknowledge he knew about allegations of sexual abuse but allowed priests to keep serving.

The revelations became public following the conviction of Geoghan, who faces accusations by 130 other alleged victims.

Law apologized for his handling of the abuse allegations - but only after the Boston Globe detailed his actions on its front page. "The archdiocese of Boston has failed to protect one of our most precious gifts, our children," Law wrote in a public letter in which he said his judgments were "tragically wrong."

Law announced new efforts to make sure future instances of sexual abuse are prevented or reported to the public. He pledged no priests accused of sexual abuse served any longer, but then suspended more priests only days later.

The Church still lacks a uniform policy for handling abuse cases. Archdiocese in Los Angeles and Chicago responded to abuse allegations by establishing toll-free numbers for people to report allegations and interviewed seminarians at graduation to screen out potential abusers.

Diocese throughout the country are feeling the enormous cost of settling cases. Estimates on the total amount paid by the Church to abuse victims ranges from $500 million to $1 billion, says New Jersey attorney Stephen Rubino, who has represented hundreds of victims. In Boston, settlements paid out are so large, the Boston Herald reported, that the archdiocese's insurance coverage for the 1970s and 1980s is almost wiped out.

Law insisted last week he won't step down. Outside observers are skeptical about whether the Church will address the problem of pedophilia among priests. "They have been unable to squarely face the conflicts of human sexuality that roil within the culture of the priesthood itself," says Jason Berry, author of a book on sexual abuse by priests. "They are in a state of denial and it's as deep as the ocean."

Prof. Groome says the Church must start treating sexual abuse as a crime instead of just a sin, and welcome greater participation by lay people in the governance of the archdiocese.

Most parishioners' support for local priests remains high, says Prof. Gillis. "All Catholicism is local," he says, which may help minimize the crisis in confidence.

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