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Keep scandal in perspective, Wuerl says

| Friday, March 29, 2002, 12:00 p.m.

Priests and lay Catholics stood and applauded Bishop Donald Wuerl following an emotional Holy Thursday sermon at St. Paul's Cathedral in which he defended the priesthood but condemned sexual abuse of children by priests.

"We cannot risk harm to even one child," he said. "As we renew our promises, let us renew our solidarity with each other, with this Church of Pittsburgh and with the Lord Jesus in whose priesthood we are privileged to share."

Wuerl and other bishops nationwide used Masses yesterday to respond to the pedophilia scandal that has consumed the Roman Catholic Church over the last three months.

Wuerl's remarks came during the annual Chrism Mass in which priests who serve the Diocese of Pittsburgh renew their vows. This Mass traditionally falls on Holy Thursday, the day on which Christians observe the Last Supper of Jesus Christ. Holy Thursday is an integral part of Holy Week, the most solemn period on the church calendar.

Wuerl defended the church's "secrecy" in not publicizing accusations against priests, saying the accusers often preferred to keep the issue from authorities and media. He also defended a much-criticized practice from decades ago of reassigning accused priests, saying bishops were only doing what they thought was best at the time. Today, Wuerl said, they know better.

"In spite of all the repetition of the same names and the same incidences that create the impression in the media that this type of abuse is widespread, it includes a minuscule fraction of the Catholic priesthood," Wuerl said. "We are dealing with a limited number of priests, albeit one priest molester is one too many. We also need to keep in mind that charges range from inappropriate touching of a child to homosexual contact with a person in the late teens."

Wuerl announced earlier this month that he had removed "several" priests because of credible allegations that they had abused children. Wuerl has refused to disclose the number of priests disciplined in the Pittsburgh diocese or when the allegations were made.

The Catholic Diocese of Greensburg said Monday it has removed two priests from duty after reviewing allegations of sexual abuse of children. The Philadelphia Archdiocese in late February said a review of its records showed 35 priests were suspected of sexually abusing about 50 children over the last five decades. Around the same time, the Diocese of Allentown announced it had removed from duty four priests who had faced allegations of sexual abuse in the last 20 years.

Last week, Pope John Paul II broke his silence and denounced the "grave scandal" of priests implicated in sex-abuse cases, saying they cast a "dark shadow of suspicion" on all priests.

"We need to keep this in perspective," Wuerl repeated several times during his sermon.

"Make no mistake about it, our people love their priests, but they also have been deeply hurt, as you and I have been, when some of our priests, as the Holy Father points out, betrayed the grace of ordination," Wuerl said.

About 1,300 Catholics attended yesterday's Mass. More than 230 priests in flowing white robes with red stitching packed around the altar to stand behind Wuerl as they renewed their vows.

During the Chrism Mass, the bishop consecrates chrisms, or holy oils, used during sacraments. The oils are distributed to the 215 parishes in the diocese to be used throughout the year. Each year at Chrism Masses, bishops ask parishioners to pray for their ministers.

"My brothers and sisters, pray for your priests," Wuerl told worshippers. "Pray also for me."

This year, priests said, their hearts are heavier because of the scandal.

"It is deflating and a little humiliating," said Rev. Michael Caridi, a parish priest at St. Louise de Marillac in Upper St. Clair. "I find Wuerl's words very honest, very forthright."

Jim Knapp, a parishioner at Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal in Washington County, said he hadn't expected Wuerl to address the scandal.

"I thought he gave a practical application of how to deal with it: It happened, let's face it and move on," Knapp said. "I look at my priest as my leader. I send my daughter to him for confession. Has my faith in priests been shaken• No, they're good leaders. We're talking about a handful."

Bishops at Chrism Masses throughout the country spoke about the sex scandal, said Bill Ryan, spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. It was not a coordinated effort at the suggestion of the conference, he said.

"This leads me to believe the church is very, very concerned about it," said Ryan, who knew of bishops in Los Angeles, San Francisco and St. Louis with homilies similar to Wuerl's. "The bishops and the Catholic faithful are concerned."

Wuerl said he was touched by the ovation — his first since he was installed as bishop here 14 years ago.

"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," he said.

Bishop Anthony G. Bosco of the Greensburg Diocese told those gathering at Blessed Sacrament Church in Greensburg that coverage of the sex scandal shows it should neither be ignored nor denied, declaring that denial is dishonesty.

"I cannot control the storm that rages around us," Bosco said. "We are all affected by it… . Just as we are pained, so are our people whose faith may be shaken, but God willing, not destroyed."

Following yesterday's Mass, Bosco fell while walking to a school next door to the cathedral and broke his shoulder.

Because of his injury, Bosco cannot preside at today's Good Friday service. However, he will attend.

Bosco plans to celebrate the 10:30 a.m. Mass on Easter Sunday at the cathedral.

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