Church Policy Conflicts the Faithful
Mix of Scorn, Compassion for Abusive Priests
By Douglass Crouse and Shannon D. Harrington
The Record [Bergen County, NJ]
June 17, 2002
At the first Sunday Mass since the nation's bishops approved new penalties for priests accused of sexual abuse, North Jersey Catholics wondered whether the church can balance American justice and Christian compassion.
"The most important thing is to get [the offending priests] away from children," said Carlos Diaz, standing on the steps of St. John the Baptist Cathedral in Paterson after a morning Mass. "But priests are human beings. They are weak, too. The church should get them help."
Yet he can't forget the victims. "A crime is a crime and priests can't have special status or immunity," he said. "Maybe it is something best left to the courts to decide."
The national guidelines, adopted Friday at a landmark bishops conference in Dallas, require church officials to report any allegation of a minor being abused by clergy and give the rank-and-file an unprecedented role in policing the church.
Priests found to have committed abuse would be allowed no contact with parishioners and would most likely be sent to a monastery. However, the policy stops short of mandating that they be defrocked, or formally removed from the priesthood, as victims and their advocates had demanded.
Any inappropriate contact - whether or not it involves force or physical contact, and whether or not any harm is apparent -- will now be considered abuse.
At four North Jersey parishes Sunday, Catholics tried to sort out their feelings about the policy.
"They made it very clear - past, present, or future - [offending priests] will be removed from the ministry," said Andy Golden at St. Peter the Apostle Church in River Edge.
Golden said the policy provided for a fair measure of compassion, particularly in dealing with older priests whose alleged abuses occurred decades ago and who would be left stranded by society if defrocked.
"What are you going to do, take a 70-year-old man and throw him out in the street?" Golden said.
Under the newly adopted policy, offending priests who are not defrocked would "lead a life of prayer and penance," which many believe means assignment to a monastery.
"A monastery is almost like a prison," said Golden, noting that a monk's room, coincidentally, is called a cell.
At St. Joseph Church in Oradell, Anna Flores was frustrated that the bishops did not demand that priests who are child sex offenders be defrocked.
"They shouldn't let them be priests," Flores said. "They should be punished."
But at Holy Rosary Church in Passaic, where the Mass was so crowded that some parishioners listened from an outside landing to the Polish-language hymns and prayers, -Janusz Wiesniak said the Catholic Church, not the courts, should have the authority to mete out the punishment.
"They should be punished in some way" but also be given treatment, the Polish immigrant from Elmwood Park said as his young daughter tugged on his hand.
Wiesniak said any priest who abuses children should face swift separation from his ministry. But he believes the priest should remain within the church.
Anna Kolano agreed that justice is necessary, but said the Christian imperative to love and forgive should not be forgotten. "If one child out of six or seven does something wrong, are you going to throw him out of the family?" the Wallington resident said.
Other parishioners said the widely reported incidents of sex abuse coverups in the church gives them little confidence in the leadership's ability to implement the new rules. Review boards set up locally or nationally to follow the rules should be composed of laypersons, said one St. Joseph parishioner.
"We need some unbiased people," Marilyn Pidi said, "or it could still be hidden."
Despite the disagreement over the new policy, clergy and church members were united Sunday in their calls for a healing of the church.
At St. Joseph in Oradell, parishioners picked laminated cards from a chest - one side with the name of a priest from the archdiocese and the other side a prayer for his well-being during this time of turmoil in the Catholic Church.
"Even if we don't know the priest, God knows him," said Florence Bartus, standing outside the church with one of the cards.
For Bartus and her friend Ellen Kozlowsky, Friday's decision in Dallas represented the church's most positive step during the sex abuse scandal.
"The bishops are doing the right thing now," Bartus said.
Said Kozlowsky: "They're not as naive as they were years ago. I think the church is now going through a cleansing."
At St. Peter the Apostle in River Edge, the Rev. William Brogan stressed that the Christian message should not get lost in the debate. Just because some may have fallen, "it has nothing to do with the message."
"You believe in spite of them," Brogan said, quoting a phrase his mother often used.
His church went through its own sex abuse scandal in 1993, when allegations that the former pastor, Monsignor Robert J. Morel, fondled an 18-year-old parishioner split the congregation.
Morel pleaded guilty to a harassment charge and was sentenced to six months of probation.
Outside the church Sunday, members said that with a change in leadership, their church rebounded. They believe the Catholic Church as a whole will do the same in the wake of the national scandal.
"I think the church will come out stronger," one parishioner said.
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