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Hong Kong's Catholic Church Seeks to Ease Fears About Sex Abuse Cases

May 05, 2002|TYLER MARSHALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HONG KONG — Roman Catholic officials in Hong Kong say they will be ready to address questions from parishioners today about the church's handling of three recently disclosed cases of sexual abuse of children by local priests.

The chancellor of Hong Kong's Roman Catholic diocese, Lawrence Lee Len, reportedly has told parish priests to work at services all day to ease worries among the region's quarter-million Catholics.

In a statement issued Thursday, the bishop of the Hong Kong diocese, Cardinal John Baptist Wu, confirmed accounts of the three incidents first printed in the region's leading English-language daily, the South China Morning Post.

He acknowledged that church leaders had not reported the three cases to the police, but instead had handled them internally. Two offenders were suspended and eventually left the priesthood, while the third was transferred to an administrative post and barred from any contact with minors.

Late Saturday, one of the three, now a 42-year-old insurance agent, was detained by police on allegations of assaulting a 15-year-old boy in 1991. A police official said the man, who was not identified, was questioned for several hours and released early today.

The diocese reportedly received two new complaints from individuals claiming that they had been molested by priests. No one was available at the diocesan center to comment on the reports.

News of the incidents marks the latest in a string of accusations linking Roman Catholic priests with sexual abuse of minors. The most widespread allegations have been in the United States.

"This is not an American problem; it's breaking out all over the world," said Father Elmer Wurth, pastor of St. Anne's Catholic Church in the village of Stanley on Hong Kong Island.

"I've had no calls to express shock, but I think people are feeling hurt," Wurth said in an interview.

Lee was not available for comment Saturday and did not return telephone calls placed to his office. However, in Saturday's editions of the South China Morning Post, the diocesan chancellor denied any attempt by the church to cover up the incidents or pay families of the victims for their silence.

"It was the decision of victims and their families not to report the incidents to the police, and we respected their choice," the paper quoted Lee as saying.

Cardinal Wu's formal statement also justified the quiet handling of the three cases, saying that "the church had always given preference to the spirit of mercy and forgiveness." However, the statement made clear that any future instances of child sexual abuse would be dealt with more severely.

"The diocesan authorities will adopt a no-tolerance policy," Wu said. "This means any Catholic priest working in Hong Kong, once proven to have committed even one act of sexual abuse of a minor, shall be removed from public ministry."

He cited new psychiatric evidence about the difficulties of altering such behavior as the reason for the shift.

Wurth said that he planned to distribute a one-page leaflet on the issue to parishioners attending today's services and that he would be available to answer questions.

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