Priests Continue to Struggle with Fallout from Sex Abuse Crisis

By Margaret Stafford
The Associated Press, carried in New Orleans Times-Picayune [Kansas City MO]
May 9, 2003

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) -- If the Rev. Hoa Nguyen walks into a restroom and finds himself alone with a young boy, he turns around and walks out. And he's not always sure how to react when children want to hug him.

But the Rev. Larry Dowling says some of his parishioners in Chicago send their children to embrace him as a sign of support.

Roman Catholic clergy attending a meeting of the National Federation of Priests' Councils this week in Kansas City said the church sex abuse crisis that erupted more than a year ago continues to affect their work.

They were embarrassed by revelations about offenders in their ranks, they said, and are now more careful in their interactions with parishioners. But they also said the crisis made them more committed to their calling.

"I am always aware that I am vulnerable," said Nguyen, 40, of Burkburnett, Texas. "But I just have to carry that fear around and be vulnerable if I want to minister to all my parishioners."

Many priests remain torn between compassion for victims and concern for fellow clergy -- including both the guilty and those who have been falsely accused. At least 325 of the 46,000 U.S. priests were either dismissed from their duties or resigned last year as the crisis spread from the Boston Archdiocese across the country.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voted last year to remove guilty priests from all public ministries where they would have contact with parishioners. But the Vatican forced the prelates to revise the policy and add due process protections for accused clergy, including special tribunals to review abuse claims.

The Rev. Robert McCann, 49, of Oakland, Calif., called the current policies a quick fix -- mostly a reaction to the intense public pressure after news reports that many bishops let offenders continue to work in parishes. He is glad the policies be reviewed again in two years.

"We must always balance the feeling that one victim is too many with the fact that all sorts of false accusations can apply," he said. "If a priest is falsely accused in the press, it's very hard for him to get his reputation back."

The Rev. Robert Silva, president of the national priests' group, which he says represents about half of U.S. priests, said in his opening speech that the bishops should revise their policy and find ministries for guilty clergy, rather than dismissing them from the church.

Allowing the men to return to ministry is in line with the church's teachings of reconciliation and redemption, Dowling said. However, he does not expect the public to accept that idea anytime soon.

"Obviously, certain priests need to be just out altogether," Dowling said. "But in some situations the priest can validly minister. It seems our message of reconciliation is not being done for priests."

The most important outcome of the scandal may be an increased awareness of sex abuse throughout society, Dowling and McCann said.

"I would love to see the Catholic church come together with victims and victims rights groups to work together to get this problem dealt with in general society. That's my dream," Dowling said.


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