US Catholic Church today began the holiest week of its year with its leading cleric promising to get tough on child-abusing priests.
But New York’s Cardinal Edward Egan failed to meet the demands of his flock that all alleged paedophile priests be reported to civil authorities in his Palm Sunday message to the city’s 2.4 million Catholics, despite an opinion poll saying nine out of 10 wanted the move.
Cardinal Egan told churchgoers in a special letter that child abusing priests will be removed from their parishes, and told Catholics they should report allegations of abuse by a priest ‘‘directly and immediately’’.
But he stopped short of a pledge that the church would pass on any allegations made to it to police or prosecutors, saying only if there was ‘‘reasonable cause to suspect abuse’’ would the claims be forwarded to authorities.
His letter came as an opinion poll of New York Catholics found 89% wanted authorities told of all abuse allegations, ending what one columnist dubbed the ‘‘black robe’’ of church secrecy on paedophile priests.
The survey of 502 church-goers found that 68% disapproved of the church leadership’s handling of the child abuse crisis, with just 14% giving embattled bishops their backing.
And the poll, by the New York Daily News, also found 8% had ‘‘personal knowledge’’ of child sexual abuse by priests.
The mounting scale of the child abuse crisis has battered the reputation of the Catholic church in the US, with Cardinal Egan himself accused of a cover-up when he was a bishop in Connecticut.
As cardinal of New York, he is seen as the most powerful of the country’s archbishops and the de facto leader of Catholic America.
And Cardinal Bernard Law, archbishop of Boston, a city which is more than 50% Catholic, has also come under fire for shuffling a known paedophile priest between parishes and refusing to pass on allegations of abuse to secular authorities.
He has apologised, but refused to resign.
Last week Pope John Paul II stepped into the row, calling child sex abuse by priests an ‘‘abomination’’ and the ‘‘most grievous form of evil’’.
But he did not pledge to defrock child molesting priests, which individual bishops do not have the power to do.
The US church has come under the fiercest fire from churchgoers who feel betrayed by the secrecy which has surrounded child abuse.
A series of newspapers have called for major changes in how the church handles the problem, and Boston newspapers have united to call for Cardinal Law to quit.
And a series of high-profile Catholics, including Peggy Noonan, former President Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter, have spoken of their anger and disgust at the way the scandal has been handled.