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Church scandals spur talk about sex

May 06, 2002|BY ANDREW SCHOTZ

andrews@herald-mail.com

The Rev. Mathew Rowgh of St. Agnes Catholic Church in Shepherdstown, W.Va., is planning a frank discussion about sex.

This month, Rowgh hopes to show adults in his congregation a videotaped workshop put on by the St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, Md., where priests are treated for sexual abuse problems.

The workshop discusses human sexuality, pedophilia and other matters of sex.

Rowgh said sex is traditionally a taboo topic, but it's worth talking about now, as the Catholic Church deals with a sexual abuse scandal.

"Some say the church doesn't talk about sex," he said, "but we're all sexual beings."

For many Catholics, sex has become an unavoidable topic as more allegations of abuse by priests have sprung up.

"People are talking about it," said the Rev. George A. Limmer of St. Mary's Catholic Church in Hagerstown.

And they're still coming to church, their faith intact, he said.

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"I can say that it hasn't changed our congregation in any way that's noticeable," Limmer said. "There are no fewer people or contributions. We still have a full church on Sunday.

"There were a couple of letters to the church affirming us and (saying) they do appreciate what we're doing."

But some changes can't be helped.

Limmer said he used to take boys on camping trips while working in Baltimore in the 1970s. He was the only adult.

Now, he wouldn't dare.

Limmer said it's a shame because the trips were innocent and nurtured camaraderie.

Each trip was a chance for the boys to see Limmer as a person instead of a priest.

"We're as human as anybody," he said. "We don't sit in an ivory tower."

Now, those same trips would be dangerous and possibly forbidden.

"It bothers me to a degree," Limmer said.

Mixed emotions

Jim Brunetti, president of the pastoral council at St. Leo Roman Catholic Church in Inwood, W.Va., said his pastor, the Rev. Brian Shoda, has been "absolutely fantastic."

"The way he handles things is great," Brunetti said. "There is no change in how he's viewed or how he behaves."

Brunetti said he and other congregants have experienced several emotions over the scandal.

"Disappointment is number one, from the standpoint that you feel a betrayal of trust, even though it's not your priest," he said.

Another feeling - outrage - is aimed at church officials who may have mismanaged and exacerbated problems as they arose.

"When you and I are long gone, the church will still be there," Brunetti said. "It's not my church or your church. It's God's church."

Brunetti said psychological tests should weed out men prone to abuse other people before they become priests.

Rodica Stoicoiu of Sharpsburg, who belongs to St. Agnes Catholic Church, said Rowgh has not shied away from the scandal.

"He stood up in the midst of the community and has said, 'I don't know what to tell you.' His own pain and hurt was obvious," Stoicoiu said.

Nationally, she said, larger and deeper topics are being considered, in particular, "Who gets to be a priest?"

If a wider pool of candidates could be priests - possibly including women - the church might be healthier, she said.

'Good ol' boy network'

Stoicoiu said the balance of power is also worth examining.

"We need to move away from the good ol' boy network," she said. "The majority of Catholics are well-educated. ... There is a perception - previous to this scandal - that the public was left out of the decision-making process. ...

"It's necessary that the church be recognized as the entire church, not just the ordained ministry," she said.

"I don't think people have any problems with their local priest ...," Rowgh said. "Our people have been very affirming to me. ... The ones they don't trust are the bishops."

Rowgh said he is a member of a diocese advisory council that proposed a commission to respond to allegations of abuse. The commission would be at least 75 percent lay people.

"You've got to take it out of the secrecy of the bishop's office ...," he said. "It's got to be with a little more openness."

Some discussions have moved into questions about homosexuality or whether the celibacy requirement for priests should be revoked.

Brunetti said he doesn't object to letting priests marry, "but not because of this issue." This is not the time to talk about it, he said.

Rowgh understands why people are chiming in with opinions on sex-related topics.

Still, it's important to remember that a pedophile is "a person who has a sickness," he said.

Limmer said it's inappropriate to tie celibacy or homosexuality to recent problems in the church because neither leads to pedophilia.

He said one theory he's heard suggests that troubled pedophiles may try to become priests, hoping that the support system around them will suppress their desires. If that's true, it hasn't worked, he said.

Cardinals' policy


During a meeting in Rome at the end of April, American cardinals drafted a policy reacting to sexual abuse.

After a speech by Pope John Paul II about power and forgiveness, the cardinals backed away from a zero tolerance approach and recommended defrocking only "notorious" serial offenders.

Stoicoiu said the "terrible tragedy" that is unfolding is an opportunity for the church to scrutinize itself. She's optimistic about change.

"What they have said is good," Limmer said, "but now they need to implement it."

That could take a while, Rowgh said.

"The church moves so slowly," he said. "That's maybe the one disappointment. It's going to be such a slow process.

"This could be a good beginning. It's a beginning, but, wow, just a beginning."

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