Little Egg Sex-Abuse Allegations Shake Faith
But Church Leaders Say It Is Possible to Rise above Scandal

By Rob Spahr
Press of Atlantic City
October 7, 2007

Little Egg Harbor Township - When scandal casts a shadow over a religious leader, it can consume an entire congregation. Such is the case with the parishioners of St. Theresa's Church here in the wake of allegations that a longtime parish priest sexually molested a minor.

And it is amid this controversy that a seed of suspicion toward religious leaders can be planted in the opinion of parishioners or an opportunity for forgiveness is born.

In the case of St. Theresa's, the Diocese of Trenton hopes a majority of parishioners will choose the latter.

The diocese removed the Rev. Terence McAlinden from his position at the church last week after it deemed there was credible evidence that McAlinden repeatedly sexually molested a minor during a span that stretched from the late 1980s to the early 1990s.

While the diocese and McAlinden wait for the Vatican to review the allegations, which could result in McAlinden being defrocked or reinstated, Monsignor Hugh Ronan will attempt to help St. Theresa's weather the storm.

This is the first time in nearly a half-century as a priest that Ronan has had to fill in for a fellow priest under these circumstances, he said.

"When something like this happens, it can cause people to really question their faith," said Ronan, who is in his 46th year as a priest. "It can bring up questions like 'What am I doing?' and 'What does the faith mean to me?'"

But after meeting with churchgoers after a Mass last weekend, Ronan is confident that St. Theresa's parishioners will regain their trust in the church.

"I got a really good feeling from them," Ronan said. "They are a very good group of people."

To help the parish move forward, Ronan will also hold a special prayer service at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at which there will be Scripture readings, prayers and a period of reflection.

"Basically, the purpose is to get the parish together to pray and to ask for the Lord's help getting through this time," Ronan said.

So far, St. Theresa's parishioners are mixed on how they will view priests in the future.

"My son is about ready to start CCD, but after this I am not sure that I even want him to go anymore," said Carrie McDermott, a longtime St. Theresa's parishioner and mother of three. "Until they change the rules and allow priests to marry, I think there will always be a risk of something like this happening."

But a majority of the St. Theresa's community is on the opposite end of the spectrum.

"This doesn't make me view priests any differently," said Janet Pascavitch, a member of the church since 1989. "There are some police officers who break the law, but that doesn't mean they're all bad. I look at this the same way."

While Ronan is new to this kind of situation, the Catholic Church is not.

In 2002, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops created a charter that mandates a prompt response to allegations of sexual abuse and the reporting of those allegations to public authorities.

And in a proactive attempt to curb the problem, the Diocese of Trenton requires all priests, deacons, seminarians, church employees, volunteers and third-party vendors who have direct contact with minors to submit to a criminal background check.

To date, more than 18,000 criminal background checks - which are done though the State Police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation - have been processed through the diocese, according to diocese spokeswoman Rayanne Bennett.

Bennett also said the diocese has instituted VIRTUS, a preventive education program for all adults who will have interaction with children, which has produced more that 20,000 participants from the diocese.

And every year, almost 90,000 children in the diocese's Catholic schools and parish religious education programs take part in "Teaching Touching Safety," which is geared toward equipping children with the skills they need to keep themselves safe from predators.

However, according to David Clohessy, the national director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, this problem is not exclusive to the Catholic Church.

"We have over 8,000 members from all over the world and from all religious denominations. No institution handles it perfectly," said Clohessy, 50, of St. Louis, Mo., who was abused by a priest in his youth.

Even though the Catholic Church has taken significant steps since 2002 to try to prevent sexual abuse, Clohessy said it still has much more work to do.

"In most denominations, the church hierarchy includes women and married persons who have a healthier understanding of sex crimes," Clohessy said. "Because the Catholic hierarchy is a rigid, secretive, all-male monarchy made up of allegedly celibate clerics, it reacts worse than other denominations."

But Clohessy said it is possible for someone abused by a religious leader - and their fellow parishioners - to regain their trust.

"It's hard, but it is possible," he said. "Most victims undergo a long, torturous period of spiritual doubt and estrangement, but many do eventually return to a strong religious life."

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