As allegations surface, Catholics urge honesty

Saturday, March 9, 2002

ST. LOUIS -- A chain reaction that began in Boston has Missouri Catholics hurting, as the past week brought out more names of priests accused of sexual abuse, sometimes treated, and always kept secret.

The Archdiocese of St. Louis is the nation's third-oldest and one of its largest, with 555,000 Catholics. A visit from Pope John Paul II in January 1999 brought the district some of its finest days. A recent burst of sexual abuse allegations has brought the archdiocese, like others across the nation, some of its darkest.

Several of those celebrating Mass at the Old Cathedral downtown, near the base of the Gateway Arch, declined to discuss the matter. Others said they have been trying to make sense of the turmoil.

"The first reaction is that it really hurts," said Kurt Leiber, an engineer in St. Louis. "It's pretty devastating to find out sexual abuse has been going on. ... It's a difficult situation. I would assume it's just a case where you have, like anything else, a few bad apples. I don't know the answer."

Last week, Archbishop Justin Rigali announced a new policy for priests accused of sexual misconduct. He said that no priest with any "substantiated allegation" of sexually abusing children will be working in a parish or any other position with access to children.

So far, the removals of five Catholic priests in Missouri have become public in the past two weeks.

Two priests in St. Louis were removed for allegations of molesting children: the Rev. Joseph Ross of the St. Cronan Catholic Church and the Rev. Michael Campbell of Our Lady of Sorrows. Ross pleaded guilty in 1998 to sexually assaulting an 11-year-old boy during confession, but the archdiocese kept the matter private and later assigned him to a new church. He was removed late last month.

The Jefferson City Diocese said it removed the Rev. Manus Daly this week and the Rev. John Fischer in 1993. Both were accused by Christopher Dixon, who had been their student at schools in Hannibal. Dixon also said he was abused by Anthony O'Connell.

In north St. Louis County, the Rev. John Hess was removed from his parish after the FBI seized his computer at Sacred Heart church as part of a child pornography investigation. Rigali urged Hess to cooperate in the investigation.

Bill Henderson, a retired man from south St. Louis County celebrating Mass at the Old Cathedral, said the church's problems are being caused by just a few people, and should not have been such a surprise: "You've got idiots in every organization," he said. "It doesn't matter what the organization, there's always going to be a certain percentage that are going to be stupid."

The solution, he said, is honesty.

"I just think we need people who are strong enough now to stand up and say, 'OK, this is wrong and we're going to correct it,'" Henderson said.

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