Abuse Scandal Casts Pall over Sunday Mass
'Let It Not Lead US to Spiritual Suicide'

By Gary Soulsman
News Journal [Wilmington DE]
November 20, 2006

One of the Sunday Bible readings in Catholic churches spoke of "stars falling from heaven."

And in the last few days in the Diocese of Wilmington, it has felt like stars were falling.

That's because of the release of the names of 20 priests with credible sexual allegations against them, said the Rev. Joseph Cocucci.

Bishop Michael Saltarelli (left) and the Rev. Joseph Cocucci celebrate Mass on Sunday at the Cathedral of St. Peter. Cocucci called on Catholics not to let criminals commit "the spiritual equivalent of murder."
Special to The News Journal/David W. Howell

While preaching Sunday, the rector of the Cathedral of St. Peter in Wilmington called this a time of sadness and crisis in the diocese. He also acknowledged the harm done to Catholics of good will -- priests and parishioners alike.

"This scandal affects every single one of us, but let it not lead us to spiritual suicide," he said.

He called on parishioners to "a vocation of holiness," one that will renew the church through faith and love -- qualities that have always moved devout people. It's these qualities that will inspire others to experience the goodness of Jesus and make the church stronger, he said.

In speaking of the recent pain in the 57 parishes, Cocucci was doing what many of his fellow priests did in weekend services.

At Holy Angels parish near Newark, the Rev. Richard Reissmann looked about the congregation Sunday morning and said he was encouraged to be in the presence of so many people he considered heroes -- people who see beyond personal needs to bring love and goodness into the lives of others. He said the church needs their dedication now in the wake of distressing news.

After the service, he talked of his surprise and hurt over the names released last week.

"I am conscious of the pain among priests, the pain among people in the pews and pain of the victims who are trying to heal," he said.

Like others in the diocese, he praised Bishop Michael Saltarelli for releasing the names. And he hopes the religious orders -- the Norbertines and Oblates of St. Francis de Sales -- will release names of those in the orders credibly accused, as the bishop has urged.

John Sullivan, of Bethany Beach, praised the bishop, too.

"It takes courage to do what he did," said Sullivan, a member of the coastal Delmarva chapter of Voice of the Faithful, a reform organization within the church.

He added that Catholics are waiting for the release of all names and called on the bishop to continue to pressure the religious orders to give the full history of these allegations -- so abusers can be avoided and people can heal.

At St. Ann's Catholic Church in Bethany Beach, the Rev. David Kelley read a statement at services this weekend that offered help for anyone who wanted to talk. He also encouraged victims to come forward.

Sullivan said this was important because St. Ann's parish's founder -- the late Rev. Richard F. Gardiner -- was named on the list.

"This issue has not gone away, and it will not go away for a while," Sullivan said. "There is still a crisis in the church."

The Rev. Joseph Cocucci, rector at the Cathedral of St. Peter, discussed priest abuse on Sunday.
Special to The News Journal/David W. Howell

In fact, said Cocucci, sadness and scandal have been with the church from its beginning, when Judas betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. But if scandal had been everything, the story of Jesus never would have spread.

What is so miraculous is that good people always come forward to renew the church, Cocucci said. This was true after the death of Jesus and it was true in darker times of corruption, such as the rule of Pope Alexander VI (1492 to 1503). Alexander, also known as Rodrigo Borgia, was the father of the notorious Lucrezia Borgia and at least eight other illegitimate children. He was responsible for several murders.

Such people commit "the spiritual equivalent of murder" by working to destroy other people's faith, Cocucci said. And he called on modern Catholics to not allow this to happen now, because the church does not belong to scandalous priests, it belongs to Jesus.

Even so, he said, the church needs to do more and the bishop, who has worked diligently on the issue, has pledged to do more. That's why the names were released, why the church encourages victims to seek healing and why the church encourages outside audits of diocesan policies, he said.

It's also why the church has turned to modern psychology to screen men interested in becoming priests, Cocucci said. Forty years ago, men who attended Mass were often accepted if they had good grades and seemed of good character.

Clearly, such methods of screening are not enough, given the problems many of those priests caused, said Cocucci, who is also director of vocations in the diocese and well-acquainted with the screening policies.

Today, a candidate must write a full autobiography, obtain numerous recommendations and go through a multistep review process. This includes an intense battery of psychology tests designed to weed out people with problems.

"When we're done, we know a candidate better than his family and friends," Cocucci said.

It's also why many more candidates for the priesthood are rejected than accepted.

"God willing, the sorts of problems we're dealing with now will not happen again," he said.

Contact Gary Soulsman at 324-2893 or


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