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Bishop sings praises of battered priesthood

Standing ovation greets Wuerl's call for understanding

Friday, March 29, 2002

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

To a standing ovation from a packed St. Paul Cathedral in Oakland, Bishop Donald W. Wuerl yesterday told priests renewing their vows that the inexcusable crimes of a few who have betrayed their calling cannot obscure the faithful service of the majority.

Bishop Donald W. Wuerl and priests at the Chrism Mass at St. Paul Cathedral yesterday -- "A heartfelt expression of gratitude for the priests" (John Beale/Post-Gazette)

Addressing the national uproar over child sexual abuse by priests, Wuerl told a crowd of 234 priests and more than 1,100 laypersons, "The starting point for much of the sense of betrayal and even anger among bishops, priests and faithful is our own deeply held conviction that the priest is ordained to be an image, an icon of Christ. If we feel pain, it is because we know who we are.

"Our people have come to recognize year after year, decade after decade, generation after generation, that this church of Pittsburgh has been served very well, that its priests do correspond to this image [of Christ]."

When he finished, the stillness of the Mass was broken by the first standing ovation he has received in the cathedral since he was installed as bishop 14 years ago this week.

In Greensburg, Bishop Anthony Bosco received similar applause when he too called for support and understanding in the midst of the scandal.

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Wuerl said after the Mass, "While I was deeply moved, I know it was mostly a heartfelt expression of gratitude for the priests who were present and for all priests."

This Holy Week, bishops throughout the nation have chosen the Chrism Mass, at which holy oil is blessed and priests renew their vows, to address a wave of scandals involving priests who were returned to ministry despite documented histories of sexually abusing minors.

The applause for Bosco brought tears to the eyes of some in the standing-room-only crowd in Blessed Sacrament Cathedral. More than 600 people, including 100 priests, heard Bosco say that the diocese could not ignore or deny the scandal.

"The media and our people will not permit us to ignore or deny, nor should we," he said. "Denial is dishonesty."

Wuerl had a similar message: "The events engulfing the church and tainting the priesthood cannot be passed over in silence," he said.

"What has led us to where we are today in the scandal around a number of priests who have abused minors is not so much the abhorrence of the moral failure itself but, added to it, the sense of failure on the part of church leadership to respond adequately to this sin, which is also a crime."

Wuerl did not speak of his own track record, which is widely regarded as one of the best. A current editorial in the Jesuit magazine America, which urged the bishops to make a public act of penance, singled Wuerl out for his refusal to reinstate a pedophile when the Vatican's highest court ordered him to do so in 1993. Wuerl has said that he has never knowingly returned a child molester to ministry.

Yesterday, however, he tried to explain that bishops who returned child molesters to parishes years ago did not act out of malice. Twenty years ago society did not recognize that the desire for sexual contact with minors was a psychological compulsion, so bishops treated it as they would any other moral problem requiring repentance and forgiveness, Wuerl said.

He continued that his own perspective on the issue changed during his first months as bishop, when he met the young victims of three priests, their parents and the traumatized people of the parishes where the abuse had taken place.

"While a bishop must consult with his staff representing many disciplines, legal, financial, canonical and pastoral, he must always respond as a pastor. ... The first obligation of a pastor is the care of those entrusted to his care."

But he urged the priests and parishioners to keep the scandal in perspective, saying that sex crimes are no more common among priests than among the general population.

In the mass media, "the priesthood is being portrayed essentially as defective and the hierarchy as inept at best. We are being told that the Catholic church is suffering a profound crisis in leadership -- a failure in its ministry," he said.

In a passage that he added too late for the copy of the homily that will be printed in this week's Pittsburgh Catholic, he defended the tradition of priestly celibacy against charges that it contributes to child molestation.

"The abolition of priestly celibacy is no more a solution to clerical misconduct than the abolition of marriage is the solution to the nearly 50 percent divorce rate in America," he said.

Afterward, priests and parishioners expressed strong support for his words.

"I thought we should have applauded the priests when they came in. It's only a small percentage of priests -- and ministers and rabbis," said Virginia Harberth, a parishioner at Immaculate Heart of Mary in Polish Hill.

The Rev. Thomas Burke, who was ordained last June, said the parishioners at St. Alphonsus in Wexford, where he is a parochial vicar, have gone out of their way recently to thank him for his ministry.

"That means a lot," he said. "It means they are encouraging us, supporting us."

Likewise, some who attended the Mass in Greensburg said they were pleased with Bosco's openness and reassured by his words. They said most priests were doing their jobs and should not suffer because of the mistakes of a few.

Cecelia Wolf of Jeannette, a convert to Catholicism, said the standing ovation was "wonderful."

"We needed that," Wolf said. "We backed up our people."

The priests also appreciated it.

"It was very affirming to be supported by the people. These are very difficult times," said the Rev. Michael Begolly, Blessed Sacrament pastor.

"The majority of priests are faithful to their calling." Begolly said, and all priests feel the others' failures. "I personally feel the pain," he said.

Staff writer Ernie Hoffman contributed to this report.

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