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Spotlight Report

Catholics feel pain, disagree on how to cure it

By Tatsha Robertson, Globe Staff, 4/24/2002

ST. LOUIS - Peter Hodgson, 42, loves the Roman Catholic Church and will never turn his back on it, but thinks there have to be institutional changes to deal with the sex abuse scandals involving priests. That is why the businessman visiting this Midwestern city from Washington, D.C., yesterday was so encouraged to hear Pope John Paul II say there is no place in the priesthood for anyone who harms children.

''I am happy to see the leadership in the church address the issue and deal with it. Maybe it's a good wake-up call,'' Hodgson said as he left the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis after noon Mass.

''I thoroughly agree with the pope,'' said Jean Van Breusegen, 70, a worshiper from St. Louis. ''Now it's time to clean the bad priests out - tell them they are finished.''

Many parishioners from St. Louis, which has the nation's third largest concentration of Catholics and has seen five priests removed since the scandal broke in Boston, said they see the pope's strong message, his meeting with American cardinals this week in Rome, and the broader sex abuse crisis as a chance for the church to look at instituting changes - such as an end to priestly celibacy, admission of women to the clergy, mandatory reporting of abuse allegations by church leaders, and a tougher screening process at seminaries.

Like a disappointed family refusing to end ties with a troubled loved one, Catholics here and around the country split about whether to implement all those changes to fix the problem. A national poll conducted for Newsweek this week found that 69 percent of Catholics favor allowing priests to marry, while another opinion survey, done for CBS News, found Catholics about evenly split over whether celibacy has been a cause of the sexual abuse problem. A poll conducted earlier this month for ABC News and the Washington Post found that nearly 80 percent of Catholics thought the failure to notify police of allegations had contributed to the problem, but only 19 percent said the ban on women in the priesthood was among the causes.

Most of all, the Catholics from St. Louis, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and California who were interviewed agreed that they have not lost faith in their church but in some of the men that run it.

''I think that people have questioned leadership, and questioned authority, but I don't believe they have questioned their faith,'' said Rich Fanning, spokesman for the Archdiocese of St. Louis. ''People are wounded. I think they are feeling more vulnerable now, but at the same time I think they understand our faith is at the root of who we are, and it is that which is going to help us get through this.''

St. Louis is so Catholic that some visiting Catholics come to the mosaic-paved basilica before visiting anyplace else in the city. Locals may be judged by the parish they attend, and there are more Catholic churches on the corners than McDonald's.

''Life moves with the rhythm of being Catholic,'' said Barbara Dorris, 54, a St. Louisan. ''Seasons change by what was happening in the church.''

It is also a city that has been shaken by the sexual abuse scandal in the church. Like dioceses in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, among others, the Archdiocese of St. Louis was prompted to reexamine abuse cases after the scandals involving priests in Boston. Since then, the archdiocese has accepted one resignation of a priest, removed three priests, and temporarily removed another after federal agents investigating child pornography confiscated his computer.

''I think the problem is pretty horrible here,'' Dorris said. ''I just think St. Louis is better at hiding it. Because it's a very Catholic town, it's easy to hide.''

Dorris still lives near the parish she grew up in. Earlier this week, she stood in her large brick home showing off 500 wooden fish she made for a parish fund-raiser. Despite her dedication, the mother of three boys and three girls doesn't go to Mass. She says a priest she caught fondling two children is still active in the ministry despite her many conversations with church leadership. But hearing the pope's words gives her hope.

''Of course, I hope it [abuse] will never happen again, but if it does it will be treated as a crime. I hope the man will be held responsible for his actions, and the victim will come first, not second, third, or fifth,'' she said.

The pope told American cardinals yesterday that sexual abuse by priests in the United States was a crime: ''The abuse which has caused this crisis is by every standard wrong and rightly considered a crime by society; it is also an appalling sin in the eyes of God.''

Georgia Dent of St. Louis, who was walking up the concrete steps of the basilica yesterday to say a prayer for the Catholic Church, agrees with the pope, but she is skeptical of some abuse allegations.

''I believe that the priests who are doing those things should get treatment,'' she said. ''That is, if they did what they are accused of.''

While Boston's Cardinal Bernard F. Law has been widely criticized for shifting abusive priests from one parish to the next, church leaders in New York have been accused of the same thing.

Cheryl Morganti, 48, was leaving St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City last week when she reflected on the crisis. She dreams of a different church in which women are ordained and priests can marry and have children.

The scandal ''hasn't changed my faith. I love it as much as I ever did,'' said Morganti. ''But the church needs to change.''

Rock Peters of Queens, who once studied to be a priest, doesn't believe ending the celibacy rule is the answer.

Peters, 44, said the answer lies in the leadership of the church. He believes the church and the government should make it illegal to transfer known sexual abusers.

''That would eliminate the problem,'' he said.

Kevin Ritchie, 34, a parishioner at a Catholic church in Yonkers, N.Y., also believes priests should remain unmarried.

''The screening process needs to be greater... a vocation is not a vocation if you are not dedicated to the flock and have not dedicated your life to the teachings of the church,'' Ritchie said.

This week at Dorris's home, a meeting of Survivor's Network for those Abused by Priests took place. The financially strapped organization has gained national recognition since the scandals erupted.

Steve Pona, 33, the local director of the group, said he is not sure the pope has fully addressed the issue, but he is hopeful.

''I hope that change comes as a result of the meeting in Rome,'' he said.

This story ran on page A19 of the Boston Globe on 4/24/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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