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  Br Bishop Laments " Suffering" Muench: Actions of Few Have Caused Much Pain

By Ryan Goudelocke
The Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana)
April 29, 2002

In his first public statement about alleged sexual misconduct by priests, Baton Rouge's new bishop called the actions of "relatively few" clergymen the cause of "immeasurable suffering" for the Catholic Church.

The letter from Bishop Robert W. Muench, who was installed just six weeks ago, was read at services throughout the diocese over the weekend. The Advocate obtained a copy Sunday from the diocese's Web site.

In a related development Sunday, the head of the Archdiocese of Boston said that expectations for reform following the recent summit of cardinals at the Vatican were too high, reiterating that the creation of a national policy on sexually abusive priests would have to wait until a Catholic bishops conference in June.

Meanwhile, Muench affirmed the Diocese of Baton Rouge's commitment to strict policing of any future allegations against local priests, noting that "there are no allegations against any priest in present service in our diocese." At a news conference last week, the Very Rev. John Carville, the second highest ranking official in the diocese, said the diocese knows of accusations against six priests, from between six and 10 people, in the past 15 years. The priests were dismissed.

Carville, the Baton Rouge diocese's vicar general, expressed grief for the victims of alleged abuse and said church administrators will notify law enforcement authorities of any future allegations.

The Archdiocese of New Orleans announced a similar policy on April 17.

Carville's news conference was in response to a now settled lawsuit in which a former priest in the diocese was accused of sexual misconduct with a teen-age boy in the 1990s. News reports identified the former priest as Daniel Lemoine, who has not been available for comment. All records in the case, which have been turned over to District Attorney Doug Moreau for possible criminal charges, were sealed in 1999 by judges at the behest of the victim. The diocese settled the lawsuit for an amount that Carville said was under $600,000.

At his meeting in Rome with U.S. bishops last week, Pope John Paul II called sexual abuse of children a crime and an "appalling sin." And Catholic leaders agreed last week to make it easier for bishops to remove predatory priests, but critics say current policies still are not severe enough. However, Muench's 440-word message urged Catholics to "support our priests who serve us so faithfully and diligently," and noted that seven new candidates for the priesthood had "come forward to apply to the seminary for our diocese this year."

At St. Aloysius Church on Stuart Drive, Charles Jumonville said he was glad to hear Muench take his message directly to parishioners.

"I'm really grateful he's communicating with all the faithful," Jumonville said. "I think it's a wholesome idea for the clergy to talk about this, and the community to hear about it."

Lance Hayes said Muench was right to defend the larger church against trouble caused by "the faults of a few."

"I think he's absolutely right," Hayes said. "We need to get behind them."

After he read Muench's message to the congregation, Father Gerald Burns echoed the sentiments it contained, and cautioned Catholics against attempts by the "secular world" to damage or even destroy the church.

"It's a tragedy," Burns said after services concluded. He noted intensive screening, including psychological tests, for potential priests. "I think the church will find a way to keep it from happening again, as the bishop said, as far as humanly possible."

While the Diocese of Baton Rouge has had a policy to deal with priests accused of sexual misconduct in place since 1990, a national policy may not be formulated until after the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' June meeting in Dallas.

"As a group of cardinal archbishops, we were able to say that there were certain things that we felt we would like to bring to that June meeting," Cardinal Bernard Law told his congregation Sunday at the beginning of Mass at Boston's Cathedral of the Holy Cross. "We were not there to make decisions."

Cardinals across the country are reporting back after a two-day gathering in Rome, where they agreed they would recommend a process to defrock any priest who has become "notorious and is guilty of the serial, predatory sexual abuse of minors."

During the short statement, Law did not address calls for his resignation, but said "these are not easy days to serve in the pastoral role that is mine." Law also called for a special day of prayer about the crisis, to be held during the Pentecost celebrations, which start May 10.

Appearing on morning news shows Sunday, U.S. cardinals who attended the Vatican meeting last week indicated there still was no agreement on whether clergymen accused of sexual abuse should be expelled from the priesthood.

Speaking on "Fox News Sunday," Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington said he supported ousting any priest accused in the future but said the cardinals were divided about whether the policies should apply to past allegations.

Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, who appeared on several shows, said there still needs to be some discussion on the "one strike and you're out" approach. On NBC's "Meet the Press," he said "mandated sentences" may not be the answer and that cardinals needed some discretion.

Cardinal Edward Szoka, past leader of the Detroit archdiocese, argued Sunday that pedophilia is no more prevalent among priests than it is in any other profession. Szoka, who now works at the Vatican and attended last week's summit, was the commencement speaker at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit.

"We don't deny the problem of pedophilia. We deeply regret it. We are ashamed of it and will do whatever is necessary to correct it," said Szoka, 74. "But we do reject the attempts to discredit the priesthood and the Catholic Church."

The sex abuse scandal began enveloping the church in January after revelations that the Archdiocese of Boston had shuttled now-defrocked priest John Geoghan from parish to parish despite repeated allegations that he was a pedophile.

The calls for Law's resignation increased this month with the release of 1,600 archdiocese documents that reveal the Rev. Paul Shanley's involvement with the North American Man-Boy Love Association.

In civil lawsuits, the former "street priest" has been charged with repeatedly raping young boys during his tenure at a Newton parish in the 1980s.

In other developments:

A priest in Tampa, Fla., was suspended while diocesan officials investigate allegations by two people of sexual misconduct by the priest 14 years ago. The Rev. Robert Morris, pastor of St. Mary Catholic Church, denied the accusations, telling parishioners Saturday that he expects to be reinstated.

In Alma, Mich., a priest resigned a week after admitting to members of two parishes that he engaged in "inappropriate sexual behavior" more than 16 years ago.

In Ohio, a 61-year-old priest resigned after Cincinnati Archdiocese officials confronted him

 
 

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