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Bless me, father, for I have sinned

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Posted: Tuesday, April 16, 2002 10:00 pm

There are columns I want to write and there are columns which I need to write.

But, as a Roman Catholic, this is a column I had to write.

I love my religion. I consider the Roman Catholic Church to be one of the greatest forces for good ever constituted. Thus, it is with nothing less than spiritual agony that I write the words which will fill out this column.

For months, the church, which has been so important a part of my life, has been racked by a burgeoning sex-abuse scandal in which its very leaders have often been the greatest offenders and abettors.Chet Diestel

And all the "mea culpas" of self-righteousness proclaimed from pulpits will not undo the harm inflicted upon untold thousands of young Catholic boys and girls and upon the church itself.

This scandal - that for decades cardinals and bishops covered up for priests who engaged in the sexual abuse of children and teen-agers - is an ecclesiastical catharsis which is destined to fundamentally change America's largest religion.

Indeed, the crisis has grown to such proportions that Pope John Paul II has summoned the American cardinals to an extraordinary meeting in the Vatican next week to - it is hoped - confront in an uncompromising manner the issue of sexual misconduct by members of the clergy.

Direct action is the only avenue open if the U.S. Catholic Church is to recover the high ground of moral authority it needs to confront a host of religious and social issues.

The long-flowing undercurrent of scandal finally broke to the surface during the sexual abuse trial of defrocked priest John Geoghan in Boston where it was revealed that his superiors, including Cardinal Bernard Law, protected him. Since then, accusations of sexual misconduct by priests have been leveled in dioceses from coast to coast.

But this scandal isn't of recent vintage. In the Stockton Diocese, for instance, it dates back at least to Father Oliver O'Grady who pleaded guilty Sept. 16, 1993, to four counts of sexual molestation of children under 14 stemming from incidents in 1990 and 1991 in Calaveras County.

Civil suits filed against him in San Joaquin County alleged incidents dating back to the 1970s when he was pastor at Lodi's St. Anne's Catholic Church.

But the only culprits in this damnable mess are not the pedophiles passing as priests, but the church's own rigid "father knows best" mentality which for so long kept a scandal of obvious historic proportions from coming before the bar of temporal justice.

Like so many lay politicians, the princes of the church forgot that as bad as a crime is, the cover up is always worse.

That very failure has led to a clarion call for drastic changes in the church's leadership by rank-and-file American Catholics.

This is truly revolutionary.

Most of the faithful hold as nearly dogma that only popes or God can recall a cardinal. Yet, when faced with a clerical hierarchy so shamefully out of touch with the need for reform, then ordinary Catholics have stepped forth. They had to, for this problem is not just about reporting sexual abusers or compensating and caring for the victims. It goes right to the heart and soul of all that the Roman Catholic Church should stand for. The continual erosion of the church's moral authority cannot be allowed to go on.

As a Catholic, I am required by the tenets of my faith to stand in protection of the innocent - in this case, the thousands of priests who have remained faithful to their vows of celibacy, who have forsaken the pleasures of earthly love for a much higher calling.

They deserve better than to be branded with wagging tongues and their continual good works looked upon with suspicion.

And the church deserves better than being the target of every anti-papist bigot who finds an all-too-willing place to spew their venom or pet theories on talk radio and the cable news shows. They are all agendas, not solutions.

Despite all I have written, not all the fault can be laid at the altar of the clergy. We, the so-called educated modern laity, have allowed this corruption to fester by our very silence and inaction.

And for that , all I can only say is, "Bless me, father, for I have sinned … ."

Chet Diestel is the Lodi News-Sentinel's city editor. He can be reached at (209) 369-7035; at 125 N. Church St., or via e-mail.

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