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    Sins of clergy unsettle church

    The diocese's Catholic clergy and parishioners confront a growing sex scandal with open discussions and a policy of reporting abuse.

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 17, 2002

    Deal with the problem. Support the victims. Stay with the church.

    That is the framework many area Catholics have adopted as they struggle to process yet another case of a priest molesting a child. The March 8 resignation of a bishop in the Palm Beach diocese is the latest episode in the church's growing scandal involving the sexual abuse of adolescent boys.

    "First of all, it's a terrible, terrible, shocking scandal, that's about all you can say about it," said Monsignor Laurence Higgins of St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Tampa. "It has affected all of our people, the young people more so. There's a lack of confidence in our authorities."

    As priests and parishioners anticipated attending Mass today, they talked about the disturbing nature of the latest disclosure -- the bishop who admitted he had fondled a ninth-grader in the mid 1970s -- and how the church should address the problem.

    The five-county Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg -- which includes 79 parishes and missions in Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough, Hernando and Citrus counties and ministers to 365,000 Catholics -- released a policy last week for dealing with sexual abuse by church personnel.

    It said, in part: "any personnel of the Diocese who knows, or has reasonable cause to suspect, that a child or vulnerable adult has been a victim of sexual abuse by any person, including other Church personnel, shall immediately make any report required by applicable law directly to the Department of Children and Family Services."

    Such openness was welcomed by many in the church who say the problem of sexual abuse by priests is an issue that is overdue for scrutiny.

    Stanley Rutkowski, a parishioner at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church in Spring Hill in Hernando County, said the situation is degrading to all who share the faith.

    "It should have been taken care of many years ago," he said. "There has been too much publicity about the subject, but it has to be opened up."

    Bill Tapp, a certified public accountant and longtime parishioner of St. Paul's Catholic Church in St. Petersburg, said the latest scandal "really stresses the importance of dealing with situations like this openly and directly. Maybe we haven't done that as well as we could have or should have in the past."

    The church's scandal expanded to the five-county Palm Beach diocese earlier this month when parishioners learned that their bishop, Anthony J. O'Connell, had fondled a student at a Missouri school 25 years ago. O'Connell apologized and resigned after the abuse was reported in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

    The O'Connell incident comes amid a major sex abuse case in the archdiocese of Boston. At least 130 people have accused now-defrocked priest John J. Geoghan of child molestation. The archdiocese has paid or agreed to pay between $30-million and $45-million to the victims. Geoghan is serving a prison term for groping a 10-year-old boy in a swimming pool.

    It shouldn't have come to this, said Citrus County resident Carol Snyder.

    "I am very angry at the church hierarchy," said Snyder, a Catholic and a member of the Citrus County School Board. "I have not lost my faith in God, but this has shaken my faith in the ability of the people at the top to make right decisions."

    The priests who committed crimes should have been defrocked, or at the very least, put in positions where they could not have contact with children, Snyder said.

    "The reason I'm angry is that so much of the money that I've given over the years thinking that it was going to the poor has been used in a coverup and that makes me angry," she said.

    Others expressed anger as well. But Father Paddy Kennedy, administrator at St. Timothy Catholic Church in Northdale, said people should distinguish between the faith and the flaws of church officials.

    "I realize that the church, although it is divinely inspired by Christ, is in the hands of human beings," Kennedy said. "I've studied the history of the church, and I recognize all of the wrong things that were done and all the wrong decisions that were made, including the popes themselves, some of whom were not icons of virtue. I'm not in the slightest way condoning what has happened. Any priest who does these things should be cast out straightaway."

    The nature of the wrongdoing is humiliating to priests, said Father Ron Aubin of Our Lady of the Rosary in Land O'Lakes in Pasco County.

    "Most of the priests I talk to, we're all embarrassed," he said. "We're all embarrassed and ashamed, but we carry on. Our focus is always on Christ."

    Sue Brett, who lives in St. Petersburg and is a lector at Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle, underscored the distinction.

    "I think between faith and religion, you are talking about two different things," Brett said. "My faith is unshakeable, but my religion is not infallible. There are people involved in my religion and once you have human beings involved in anything, there are going to be missteps, mistakes and problems."

    The current scandal, said Hillsborough County Tax Collector Doug Belden, is not going to drive him from the faith.

    "I'm still going to be a practicing Catholic," said Belden, a member of Sacred Heart Church in Tampa. "I believe they're isolated events. If you go to the church and you don't like the priest, it doesn't mean you can't be faithful and practice Catholicism."

    It's that very line, said Tapp, the parishioner at St. Paul's in St. Petersburg, that St. Paul's pastor Father Robert Gibbons was able to navigate. Gibbons spoke about the molestation scandal at last Sunday's 9:30 a.m. Mass. Those attending, Tapp said, applauded his candor.

    "It's not an easy thing to talk about, but it was something that was necessary and appropriate," Tapp said. "I personally felt he handled the situation very well and I think that maybe that's evidence of the church being more open and forthright about this. . . . It's a problem and you can't sugarcoat it."

    Gibbons said the episode shows how potent a force sin is in the world. The victims, he said, need to be supported in their pain.

    "I had so many different thoughts and emotions running through my heart and mind," Gibbons said. "Priests are given a tremendous privilege in ministering to people. It's a terrible thing when this privilege is abused."

    -- Times staff writers Barbara Behrendt, Ryan Davis, Logan D. Mabe, Wes Platt, and Times correspondent Jean Johnson contributed to this report.

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