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Clergy facing up to sex abuse, seek healing for victims

Following the lead of many of their colleagues nationwide, Hernando County Catholic church leaders are beginning to speak out on the subject of sexual abuse of children by priests.

Monsignor John Cippel of St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church in Spring Hill broached the subject from the pulpit during Masses on March 3 and 4.

In his message, Cippel admitted his heart was heavy because of the many abuses of children that have come to light in recent months. He referred to Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, who admitted his failure to protect children from abusive priests; Law said, "Unintentionally, I have failed in that responsibility."

Cippel pointed out that although the cardinal said his failure was unintentional, Law acknowledged that he failed in his responsibility.

Cippel publicly asked for God's healing grace for the children who suffered psychologically and spiritually. He also asked forgiveness "as a brother priest for those priests who deeply harmed those children and their families and tarnished the good name" of the Catholic church "and have caused deep hurt to all of us as Catholics."

Cippel asked himself and his parishioners how it was possible that priests become sexual predators.

"I believe one root cause is something we do not hear about sufficiently," he said. "I personally believe addiction is at the core of many of these scandals, as well as denial, which is its companion."

He went on to say that addiction does not take away the responsibility, or excuse the one who acts under such a compulsion. He believes, however, that addiction cannot and should not be treated as an ordinary weakness or failure or sin that can be overcome by ordinary means of repentance, rehabilitation and promise not to do it again.

Cippel noted that most sexual predators in society are or have been married, so he does not believe the celibacy requirement in the Catholic church is the main issue.

The pastor of one of the largest Catholic churches in the county, Cippel offered hope to the parishes. He said priests, deacons, seminarians, staff members and volunteers who have any contact with children or youth must undergo security checks; seminarians, he said, are given rigorous psychological screenings and receive mandated education on healthy sexual maturity.

The following weekend, Cippel emphasized that looking the matter squarely in the face would go a long way toward overcoming the fear and hurt the Catholic church is feeling. No longer must the abuse cases be swept under the rug, he told parishioners.

The Rev. Konrad Sundholm said he was ordained in 1955, and "you wouldn't believe how naive I was. I thought that once I was ordained, I would be holy because of the ordination. Boy was I wrong."

As Sundholm addressed the parish Sunday at St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church in Spring Hill, he said he makes a distinction between a priest, who is very human, and the priesthood, which is a divine ministry.

"The priesthood itself is divine in that it is a sacrificial presence in our midst," he said.

Sundholm said he took issue with a recent column in the St. Petersburg Times by Mary Jo Melone "when she said we suffer from an excess of conscience and made the statement that the church does not. I never met a bishop or priest who would deliberately expose a young person to a pedophile.

"The fact that these things were not made public wasn't always an indication that the church didn't have a conscience. I've been a priest for 47 years and have heard many confessions of murder, adultery and sexual abuse, but under no circumstances can I reveal what I've heard. A priest is not a policeman."

The 72-year-old retiree from the Diocese of Rochester, N.Y., who celebrates Mass occasionally at St. Joan of Arc, said, "We really feel so guilty that other brother priests have done these things and carry that sense of guilt every day of our lives."

"Today, more than ever," Sundholm said, "I am proud to be a Catholic and a priest," and he asked everyone to pray for the priests' victims.

The revelations about pedophile priests have left many local Catholics upset and confused.

Denise Leftridge participates in as many activities as she can find time for at St. Frances Cabrini. She is 17 years old and has been with the church for about six years.

Leftridge said she is disturbed because "it bothers me that you can't trust your priest now. They've always said "Come to us,' and now I realize you really can't because that's not how the world works now."

After reading recent newspaper accounts of the national scandals, Leftridge said, she was shocked that a priest "would think about doing anything like that."

She said that Cippel's message made some people feel better and others feel worse.

"Some felt good because they can now look out for things like this, and others felt bad because those with kids have it in the back of their mind and hope nothing will happen to them."

Leftridge was glad Cippel made his parish more aware of what is going on in the Catholic church.

When asked if she believed the abusing clergy could be saved, her answer was, "Yes, with counseling and support they can be turned around. They're salvageable."