US Catholic leaders debate cure for sexual abuse scandal

Boston Globe/April 1, 2002
By Susan Milligan

Washington -- On a day designated for celebration, prominent Catholics struggled with a tough question: How does a church shaken by disclosures of sexual misconduct by priests find salvation?

Easter Sunday brought another revelation, this time of a priest in Michigan who acknowledged ''inappropriate sexual contact'' with a minor more than 20 years ago. Scores of incidents of priests' preying on children have been reported across the country.

The Rev. Vincent DeLorenzo, 63, made the admission following allegations of sexual abuse of an 8-year-old boy, the Flint Journal reported. The abuse allegedly occurred over a five-year period beginning in the late 1970s.

The Rev. Donald Cozzens, former vicar of priests in the Diocese of Cleveland, yesterday called the sex crimes ''a crisis in credibility for our bishops and our leadership . . . a crisis in trust and confidence that Catholics place in their priests.''

The Rev. John McCloskey of the Catholic Information Center said the ''awful crimes'' are not endemic among the clergy, but ''a reflection of a very, very small minority.''

And Raymond Flynn, onetime mayor of Boston and former ambassador to the Vatican, said he wanted to ''get all this behind us and . . . go back to dealing with the issue of religion and the teachings of Jesus Christ and the church.''

In a holiday religious roundtable, priests and laypeople took to the airwaves to wrestle with the question of where change needs to occur: within the church or with the people it selects to guide its flock?

''I think you make sure it never happens again by . . . taking a much more meticulous selection in terms of the type of person who is admitted to the priesthood,'' McCloskey said during a discussion on NBC's ''Meet the Press.'' ''It's not simply a question of psychological tests, which indeed are being done at all major seminaries and dioceses now. But it's really looking for people who are capable of living the celibate life.''

Others argued that the church must undergo some major renovation, perhaps allowing priests to marry.

''I think the future of celibacy is pretty shaky right now,'' said the Rev. Thomas Doyle, a former canon lawyer, suggesting the possibility of ''optional celibacy'' for priests. ''Simply taking vows and making promises doesn't bring about a metaphysical and emotional change within.

''I do believe that to make it an option certainly would enhance the emotional and psychological health of the priesthood in general, and it certainly would open it up to a lot more men who would be willing to come on board and serve as priests,'' Doyle said.

The Rev. Richard McBrien of the University of Notre Dame challenged the response of the Vatican as inadequate. In a 12-page message last week, Pope John Paul II included a paragraph saying the Vatican was ''profoundly afflicted by the sins of some of our brothers,'' and calling on Catholics to commit themselves more fully to their faith.

McBrien said, ''It's not just a question of a few bad apples in the barrel. It's the question of the nature of the barrel, and also the process by which we select the apples and put them in and monitor their health.''

The question of homosexuality among priests vexed the panelists. They disagreed about whether it matters if a priest is gay or heterosexual since the church bans sexual activity by priests.

''We want to be fair and compassionate to many wonderful gay seminarians and gay priests,'' Cozzens said. He estimated that 30 to 50 percent of priests are gay, though they may be celibate.

McCloskey sharply disagreed, putting the percentage of gay priests at 2 to 4 percent. What is more important, he said, is to conduct psychological tests.

With the demand for celibacy deterring some men from the seminary, the priesthood may become a ''cover'' for men with sexual problems, McBrien said.

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