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Esteemed Priest Calls for Accountability

Scandal: South Pasadena parish applauds criticism of church leaders.

March 18, 2002|TERESA WATANABE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a searingly blunt sermon that led to a standing ovation, one of the Southland's most prominent priests exhorted the Roman Catholic Church on Sunday to summon the "raw courage" to openly address the problem of clergy sex abuse.

That painful process would lead to the church's purification, said Msgr. Clement J. Connolly, who served as secretary to Cardinals Francis McIntyre and Timothy Manning before taking the reins at Holy Family Church in South Pasadena.

Connolly, a priest for 38 years, told his congregations at all six Masses that church leaders had failed the people in neglecting the problem, which he said had caused irreparable wounds to victims, damage to the priesthood and feelings of betrayal, anger and shame among many Catholics. He said once-unquestioned church leaders must now be accountable to the people, and he asked parishioners to accept his remarks Sunday as "part of me being accountable as a pastor."

"We have let this malignancy grow and allowed it to reach the awesome proportions it has today," Connolly said of the sex-abuse problems. "Not to speak about it now would be to compound and continue the malfeasance."

Roman Catholic leaders in Southern California have yet to give a public accounting of their handling of priestly abuse cases. Church sources maintain that Cardinal Roger M. Mahony in recent weeks dismissed or forced the resignations of a number of priests who were involved in molestation incidents but continued to work for the archdiocese. However, the archdiocese has declined to confirm those actions. It has issued two general statements on the problem of abuse, apologizing to victims and explaining church policies.

While leaders of the Los Angeles archdiocese and the Diocese of Orange settled a major priest-molestation lawsuit last year, a case earlier this year in Boston focused unprecedented national attention on the practice in some dioceses of moving priests in sexual-abuse cases to other churches rather than firing them. In many cities, scores of new victims have come forward, and dioceses have begun reexamining their policies.

Mahony's Efforts Called 'Honest'

In remarks after Mass, Connolly declined to dwell on the failures of church leaders and said that Mahony, who presides over 5 million Catholics in 292 churches in the region, was making a "sincerely honest" effort to deal with the issue. The Los Angeles Police Department is investigating whether any of the departed priests had committed a crime, and officers have said the archdiocese has promised to cooperate.

The publicity has also led to what may be an unprecedented conversation between priests and their parishioners on the sensitive issue of clergy sexual abuse. Los Angeles archdiocese spokesman Tod Tamberg said priests throughout the Southland are reporting that they have begun to speak about the issue regularly to parishioners. Some churches have reportedly started small discussion groups to share their emotions over the crisis. A recent letter to the faithful from Mahony on the issue, in which he called child abuse criminal and "seriously sinful," has inspired some priests, such as Connolly, to preach homilies on the issue.

Tamberg said Connolly's call to hope amid despair was starting to reverberate throughout the archdiocese. He said there was an emerging conviction that "somehow we'll get through this and be a stronger church."

In his sermon, Connolly put the message this way: "What's happening is good for the church," he told parishioners. "Bad for its image, maybe, but good for the church. In some miraculous way . . . through the growing of the Holy Spirit in the church, we will find our way to a new day in which there is more honesty, courage, faith and accountability."

According to new archdiocesan policies, any priest found guilty of sexual misconduct with minors will be dismissed and encouraged to leave the priesthood. Mahony also ordered all priests in public ministry last week and this week to attend workshops to review archdiocesan sexual-abuse policies, receive advice on how to maintain "healthy boundaries" and learn the legal requirements of reporting suspected child abuse.

In his public remarks, Connolly, 62, said the current crisis presented perhaps the greatest challenges he has ever faced. He traced the evolution of the priest as the once "uncontested oracle of the moral order" to a figure whose iconic standing today has been "badly damaged, perhaps even destroyed" by the scandals.

"It's a new age when the servant-priest stands before people and asks for their blessings," said Connolly, who was ordained in Ireland in 1964 and has built Holy Family into a 4,000-family congregation with a $4-million annual budget that includes more than 80 ministries, a school, pastoral center and youth center.

Then the monsignor appealed to his flock: "Pray. Pray for your priests."

His remarks drew tears and sustained applause. Although one parishioner described it as "spin control," others hailed what Claudia Fosselman called Connolly's "courage and tenderness" in urging open debate and an embrace of victims as a "precious part of the church."

Diana Casares Bell, a South Pasadena attorney, said her faith has been strengthened by the scandals rather than shaken.

"I see the church doing the right thing," she said. "I think these corrective and healing steps will unify the church."

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