Scandal Strains Bond between Priests, Flock
Church Braces for Release of Abuse Report
By Tom Breen
Florida Today [Melbourne FL]
February 26, 2004
MELBOURNE -- Call it a sacred trust, this bond between priest and parish.
Even amid scandal, many Catholics trust their clergy more than they do friends and family. To Catholics, priests are advisers and confessors, from birth to death, and expected to be far better people than the rest of us.
"When I was growing up in Ireland, the church was the center of our lives, and I looked at priests as representatives of God," the Rev. Eamon Tobin said the other day, recalling the impact the church has had on his life.
As he talked, ominous storm clouds accumulated outside his office window at the Ascension Catholic Church, where he is pastor. The church, founded in the late 1950s, now has more than the 3,000 families.
"This weather reminds me of Ireland," he said, his brogue thickening at the mere thought of being back home. But the 57-year-old priest is far from the Ireland of his youth. He now is a priest in the United States, where a sex-abuse scandal has stirred up a storm of its own throughout the American church.
And today, a report prepared for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is expected to disclose that numerous priests nationwide shattered parishioners' trust by abusing thousands of children from 1950 to 2002.
The church hierarchy, for its part, made it all worse by covering up many of the cases, often transferring sex-abuse priests from one parish to another.
In the Orlando diocese, which includes 15 churches in Brevard County, 36 victims claimed sexual abuse, and 12 priests were relieved of their duties since the diocese began in1968, said officials who compiled statistics for the report. The report, prepared by researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, does not break down the Orlando figures by county, so there is no precise way of know how many sexual-abuse incidents occurred in Brevard.
What is clear, however, is that regardless of the number of cases occurring in central Florida, all Catholics have been shaken, even if their parishes have not been directly affected.
Across Brevard, other priests are comforting parishioners, doing what they can to prevent people from leaving the church. Obviously, defections hit the church's pocketbook hard, because all parishes rely on donations to subsidize facilities and their priests.
In short, priests have little choice but to follow Tobin's lead and address the crisis forthrightly, with honesty and compassion.
"Every priest knows the sex-abuse cases were a terrible violation of trust," Tobin said. "All the priests committing these crimes were sick, but the church's decision to cover it all up hurt people even more, especially after the church became aware of what actually was going on in the 1980s and 1990s."
He added that, sadly, many priests involved in sex-abuse cases "were good people, who served God 95 percent of the time."
But regardless of why the abuse occurred, sickness or criminality, the impact on Catholics has been overwhelming.
"I have great faith, and I know people are human, but I am not sure I ever will recover from this scandal," said Ludi Krachun of Melbourne, a retired teacher and an Ascension parishioner since 1968. "So much has changed in the church, and not for the better," she said after attending an Ash Wednesday service.
Krachun said the son of a friend of hers was abused by a priest many years ago and "never was the same after that," dying at a young age in New York City, she said.
She will not stop going to church, she said, "because I have a core belief that can never be harmed, but I am very angry about what has happened."
Another parishioner, Nancee Martin of Viera, said "you can't blame all priests" for the behavior of a few, but she added she worries about the safety of her two children, whether they are in non-church day care or with a priest. "In this world, you have to be careful," she said.
Tobin has heard many similar comments since the scandal broke.
"People have every right to be as mad as hell with how this problem was handled, but they have to decide at some stage how long they want to be angry with the church," he said.
As this scandal continued to unfold during the past few years, the majority of parish priests who cannot even comprehend hurting children in any way have been victims of guilt by association.
As for himself, Tobin said, "I've never been around kids in an inappropriate way, or an offensive way, so I really don't have a fear about that."
He added the diocese has strict rules now in place pertaining to possible sex-abuse violations, and he and others at Ascension are "very concerned" about making sure children are protected.
With Tobin, the parshioners at Ascension have the longest-serving priest in the county. He first came to Brevard in 1975.
Now, he is a fixture in the county with no plans to leave, as he ministers to his 3,000 families.
And, in the end, as one priest in one parish, it is up to him to carry on the faith, to help heal the wounds that have ravaged the Catholic Church.
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