Catholic Church undertakes acts of contrition

Priests are apologizing to victims of abuse and performing acts of penance in an effort to rebuild trust.

From Boston to California, Roman Catholic leaders are carrying out high-profile acts of public contrition aimed at rebuilding the moral authority of their scandal-plagued church.

Faced with falling attendance at Masses, dwindling contributions, and a continuing tidal wave of sexual-abuse lawsuits, many in the church are looking for ways to rebuild public trust - even as critics worry their actions are more public-relations tactics than genuine efforts at reform.

In recent days:

• Bishop Richard Lennon, Boston's new temporary administrator, has agreed to meet with all victims - and is pushing for quick settlements in the roughly 400 sexual-abuse lawsuits pending in his diocese.

• Baltimore's Archbishop William Keeler has become perhaps the first American cardinal to testify in a criminal trial. His dramatic courtroom apology to an abuse victim charged with shooting a priest helped get the man acquitted of manslaughter charges.

• In California, a group of priests has begun performing public penance for their brothers' sins, doing everything from working as a janitor's assistant to explaining the scandal to teenagers.

In some ways the moves are part of the American church's decade-long process of coming to terms with the abuse. Yet if the new tone of openness and sympathy is to continue, observers say, church officials will have to buck many pressures, including admonitions from lawyers to be tight-lipped - and from the Vatican not to bow to popular or media pressure. Meanwhile, amid the public pledges of reform, skeptics invoke the words of Jesus: "By their fruits ye shall know them."

"I'm cautiously optimistic," says Bill Gately, cocoordinator in New England for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).

He says Bishop Lennon has set a better tone since replacing Cardinal Bernard Law, who resigned Dec. 16.

Lennon's priorities are helping victims, protecting children, and bringing healing to the church. He has said he will meet with victims and with the powerful lay group Voice of the Faithful (VOTF) - and would consider selling church property to raise funds to reach a settlement in the lawsuits.

But critics say that's hardly enough. Other needed steps include full disclosure of records on abusive priests, implementing a plan to help protect children, and lifting a ban on new VOTF groups meeting on church property. These and other things, says Gately, "could promote the beginning of the restoration of trust."

Meanwhile, in Baltimore, Cardinal Keeler had declined to address the abuse scandal until recently. In September he took the unusual step of releasing the names of the 56 priests accused of abuse in the past 44 years - and disclosing that $4.1 million has been paid to settle abuse cases since 1987.

Then, last week, Cardinal Keeler testified in the trial of Dontee Stokes, who was charged with attempting to murder the Rev. Maurice Blackwell in May. Mr. Stokes accuses Father Blackwell of raping him a decade ago.

Keeler walked into the courtroom, shook Stokes's hand, and said on the witness stand, "I apologize" for not preventing the abuse. As Keeler exited, Stokes's aunt stood up to hug the cardinal. Stokes was convicted only on lesser handgun-possession charges.

Other leaders have taken steps toward openness. San Francisco Archbishop William Levada, for instance, has turned over 75 years worth of priest records to authorities. Yet many haven't disclosed documents. And some are facing growing criticism, including New Hampshire Bishop John McCormack, who once served under Cardinal Law.

In Santa Ana, Calif., a dozen priests held their first day of public penance last week. After praying with the 51st Psalm, which asks God to "blot out my transgressions," they took public suggestions as to the best ways to show penance. One read stories to homeless children. Another gave up his car for a day. It was a small way to "be in solidarity with those who have experienced the suffering," says the Rev. John McAndrew, who helped develop the idea, because, "When the church loses its moral voice it has nothing."

These efforts are the natural outgrowth of the church coping with its troubles. Since Law's departure they're getting more attention, argues Thomas Reese, editor of America, a Jesuit magazine. "Cardinal Law was such a cloud in the sky that he overwhelmed everything else," says Mr. Reese.

But the efforts may have to go beyond pious talk - and include structural change - to revitalize Catholics' desire to attend at Mass and to give money. Polls show both are flagging.

In a recent Gallup poll, 28 percent of Catholics said they attend church at least once a week - down from 38 percent in December 2001. Also, 40 percent of Catholics say they're contributing less money because of the scandal - up from 30 percent in March.

To achieve big change, bishops will have to stop listening "to the stonewalling lawyers," says Reese. They'll also have to buck a centuries-old tradition of unwillingness to respond to criticism - a concept codified in the doctrine of romanità. It dictates that, "If you can outwait all, you can rule all," writes author Malachi Martin.

Indeed, says Reese, "The Vatican does not like to make decisions under pressure." Or as Gately puts it: "One of the attributes the church has is endurance - they'll wear you down."

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