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Catholics confront feelings about scandal.

Byline: JEFF WRIGHT The Register-Guard

Ralph Edwards thinks the Vatican should have responded long before now to the sex scandal rocking the Catholic Church, and he doesn't mind saying that many church leaders have mishandled the extensive allegations of child abuse by priests.

But none of that stopped Edwards, a retired librarian, from attending daily Mass at St. Jude Catholic Church in south Eugene on Thursday morning.

Edwards, a former Mormon who joined the Catholic Church about 12 years ago, says that's because his faith is tied to something larger and more powerful than scandal.

"It's not just about those who've misbehaved or just about the saints," he says. "It's about everyone in between."

Like millions of American Catholics, Edwards has wrestled with feelings of shock, anger and sadness as the church confronts mounting revelations of priests abusing children and accusations that some church leaders knew about the crimes and did nothing to stop them.

The scandal, which has produced legal settlements costing the church millions of dollars, made worldwide headlines this week when Pope John Paul II summoned all American cardinals to Rome next week to discuss the situation.

The crisis has reinvigorated debate on whether celibacy should be required of priests, and the role of women and gays in church leadership - topics that Catholics in Eugene, at least, don't agree on.

It's also placed some Catholics in the awkward position of questioning the real extent of the problem without appearing dismissive of victims.

The scandal's tentacles reach close to home: The Archdiocese of Portland, representing 125 parishes and 26 missions in Western Oregon, has reached full or partial settlements in abuse cases involving at least four priests, according to archdiocese spokesman Bud Bunce. New cases continue to surface, including one filed last week in Multnomah County in which a Washington state man claimed abuse by two Mount Angel priests in the 1950s.

In February, the archdiocese formalized a child abuse policy that requires background checks of all priests and other church employees with access to minors. It also outlines a new school curriculum on safe touch and appropriate boundaries with adults that parochial schools will offer to elementary students beginning this fall.

The archdiocese has set up a child abuse contact line where people can report suspected abuse to a licensed psychologist.

One thing the crisis hasn't affected is church membership. Nearly 1,800 new Catholics joined parishes in the Portland archdiocese over Easter, pushing total membership to a record high of 300,000, Bunce says.

At St. Jude, one of Eugene's more liberal parishes, some members see the crisis as a divine test and opportunity for reform.

"All through life God gives us challenges, and now the Catholic Church faces an immense challenge that's going to make us stronger and bring forth changes," says Pat Wren, a retiree and member of St. Jude's governing board.

"We're going to have to allow married priests and women to be priests," she says.

But Joe Hoffman, a UPS driver and father of two, isn't so sure. There could be unintended consequences of abandoning the requirement of celibacy: "Priests marry, and then you have divorces, fidelity issues, confessional issues," he says.

Hoffman sees a different kind of reform springing from the current crisis: The church, he says, has traditionally viewed priests as separate and above everybody else. "If there's a positive result from all this, it'll be a church hierarchy that's much more integrated with the laity," he says.

Reform-minded parishioners at St. Jude have a clear mentor in the Rev. John McGrann, their parish priest. At Thursday's Mass, McGrann didn't hesitate to address the topic at hand, explaining that the church scandal "has sort of brought me down a notch" and made him strive to be more humble.

"We can be haughty as Catholics, with our schools and churches and hospitals and power, when we need to be humble," he told those gathered. "We need to be open ... The celibate priesthood is one way, but there are other possibilities and we need to be open to them."

McGrann, 61, has been a priest for 35 years, the past four at St. Jude. Shortly after reports of child abuse by priests in Boston and elsewhere became public, he met with supervisors from a local child abuse prevention service, returning to church with brochures on how to protect kids from molesters. He also organized a forum on child abuse within the Catholic Church, attended by about 30 of St. Jude's 550 members.

The forum was important, he says, because members needed permission to learn the facts and share their feelings. "It's like a death in the family," he says. "There's anger, shock, denial, bargaining. It's a long process.

"The church, though an institution, is also like a family, and a family can be dysfunctional and not face issues," he says. "We are as sick as our secrets."

At the same time, it's also important to keep the scandal in perspective, McGrann says. Child abuse within the church is no more rampant than in society at large, and at least some of the lawsuits accusing priests are also targeting the church's deep financial pockets, he says.

McGrann says he has counseled both abusers and victims over the years, and that the current scandal has left him feeling ashamed and disappointed. "It's very hard to be a Catholic these days," he says.

At St. Mary Catholic Church in downtown Eugene, the Rev. Mark Bachmeier knows the feeling.

"I don't find it very hard to be a priest who lives with integrity, just hard to be a priest in a public forum," he says. "I'm doing my best to be faithful to the gospel, and then things like this happen."

Bachmeier says the scandal has involved mostly older priests, who attended seminary when admission screening was much more lax. In some ways, he says, the crisis feels very distant as he busies himself in the day-to-day tasks of ministering to a 2,000-family parish. He says he senses that members' resolve to take care of the church's young people has become stronger because of the crisis.

Bachmeier says he has come to believe that what the church is facing is not a crisis of celibacy but rather a crisis of conversion. "If they (perpetrators) had genuinely converted to Jesus the Lord, they wouldn't be doing these things," he says. "There are deep moral values that are simply being disobeyed by these men."

Jerry Schindler, a parishioner at St. Mary and former priest who left the vocation and married, says his response to the scandal has been a singular task: "It makes me pray harder for the holiness of priests."

Schindler says he suspects that the Vatican felt pressured into calling next week's meeting, and doesn't "see too much coming out of it." But he hopes he's wrong.

"Judgment begins at the house of God, and that's where we are," he says.


INSIDE Pope's meeting with U.S. cardinals will cover a broad range of controversial issues, a top Vatican official says / 5A
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Title Annotation:Religion: Local faithful experience shock, anger and sadness over priests' abuses.; Religion
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Apr 19, 2002
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