PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — For Christians, the deepest meaning of Easter is that life follows death, that hope can vanquish suffering. For American Catholics, who have endured weeks of seamy, sorrowful revelations about the behavior of some priests, that message Sunday held a special poignancy and comfort.
On the holiest day in the church year, when the faithful celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the promise of eternal life, Father John Kasparek pointed during Mass to a tall white candle burning in front of the altar. Its flame, the pastor told his congregation, "stands before us as a reminder that Christ always breaks through the darkness."
Though more than 50 priests in 17 U.S. dioceses have been forced out, suspended or sidelined in the pedophilia scandal, no community of Roman Catholics has been more shaken than the Diocese of Palm Beach on Florida's Atlantic coast. Here, the last two bishops have quit because of sexual involvement with minors, leaving many of its quarter-million Catholics shocked and bewildered.
When it comes to their granite-hard faith, though, it is a different matter. Standing-room-only crowds attended Easter Mass at the Cathedral of St. Ignatius Loyola in this comfortable suburb of West Palm Beach. Attired in Easter finery and country-club casual, they came in such numbers that their cars overflowed onto the church lawn.
In his homily, Kasparek said all Americans were rocked out of their complacency by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. And recently, the nation's 62 million Catholics "have also been shocked by the events in our church that have cast a gloom of darkness upon us.
"But as a community of the faithful, we believe our faith is rooted in Jesus Christ alone, not in any minister, any bishop, any pope," he continued. "Live as people of hope and follow the light of Christ."
At the end of the jam-packed services held throughout the morning, parishioners came up to Kasparek and other clergy members and embraced them as a sign of support. Claudine Cannezzaro, 30, a youth counselor, said she left the service with her convictions renewed.
"I think this is the time to put all of these things aside and go forward," Cannezzaro said. "People have overreacted and forgotten that all of the people involved in the church are men and women, and men and women make mistakes. We need to pray for them."
The diocese extends over five counties of southeastern Florida, from the posh Palm Beach parish attended by the vacationing Kennedy clan out to Everglades churches that minister to migrant Caribbean sugar cane workers. On March 8, its members were stunned when their bishop, Anthony J. O'Connell, resigned after admitting he had sexually fondled a teenage seminary student in Missouri in the 1970s.
Catholic Hierarchy Target of Criticism
O'Connell had been named to this diocese by Pope John Paul II in 1999 after his predecessor, Bishop J. Keith Symons, became the first U.S. Catholic prelate to quit because of sexual involvement with minors. Symons admitted he molested altar boys while in another posting a quarter-century earlier.
"It was such a tragedy--Bishop O'Connell coming to the diocese, and then these revelations coming forward--because he was so charismatic and loved," said Samuel J. Barbaro, a deacon who serves as the diocese's spokesman. "He had really embarked on healing all of the scars caused by the first bishop resigning."
If some churchgoers here expressed disappointment and suspicion Sunday, it was about the conduct of the Catholic hierarchy, covering up sexual acts involving priests and children for so many years. "In solidarity with our priests," read a button pinned to usher Terry Murphy's lapel.
"Ninety-five percent are good, good men," Murphy said. "It's the bishops I'm mad at for allowing these things to happen. You see a bad priest, and he just got transferred from parish to parish. When I was growing up, I had the same parish priest for 30 years."
Murphy said Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston and Cardinal Edward M. Egan of New York--leading U.S. prelates whose subordinates have been implicated in the pedophilia scandal--should step down for the good of the church. "They had to have known what was going on," he said.
"It's the cover-up that is the big deal," said Zane Wright, 54, another usher at St. Ignatius Loyola. "They are trying to protect the reputation of the church. They don't want it tarnished. And we see where that led."
None of the incidents involving the former bishops occurred within this diocese. In the event of one, Barbaro said a church policy set in 1985 calls for suspending the clergy member or layperson under suspicion and convening a special investigative team. "If something has happened, civil authorities would be notified immediately," Barbaro said. "The diocese has made it clear that anyone knowing anything about child abuse or sexual abuse should contact the diocese; they want to help."