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Published: Saturday, 5/15/2004

Church scandal setback

CATHOLICS want to believe their church hierarchy is dedicated to do whatever it takes to resolve past problems that caused so much pain to so many. But even as allegations of sexual abuse committed by priests continue to surface and victims continue to press for legal redress from the church, there are troublesome developments among some church leaders that cast doubt on the dedication of the hierarchy to deal with the damage.

Perhaps most disturbing is the recent decision of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati to return a priest to active ministry who was convicted of indecent exposure and soliciting an undercover police officer for sex in a Dayton park. The Rev. Raymond Larger was fined $110 and placed on probation.

Only a year later Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk is welcoming him back to the fold, setting him up in the downtown cathedral, and giving him the green light to celebrate the sacraments in area parishes as needed. The archbishop apparently based his decision on a favorable report by Father Larger's psychologist as well as the church leader's expectation that the guilty priest will "live in accord with the demands of celibate chastity."

Father Larger apologized for his behavior. He deserves forgiveness, said Archbishop Pilarczyk. Church law gives him authority to forgive and forget the indiscretions of his priests. But the action is appalling nonetheless given Father Larger's crime and his resumed closeness with parishioners.

"It's mind-boggling," lamented Christy Miller of Cincinnati's chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "He is a direct threat to any parish he serves. I certainly would not keep my children there."

The archbishop's reinstatement of the chastened priest to active parish work comes shortly after complaints by a key panel of lay Roman Catholics that American bishops are backsliding on their resolve to confront clergy abuse without compromise.

The National Review Board has expressed frustration over the "obstructionist" response of some bishops to its task of stopping the abuse through recommended church reforms. The first leader of the panel, former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, resigned over the perceived barriers erected by recalcitrant bishops.

Now the interim chair of the review board, Anne Burke, is also accusing church hierarchy of foot-dragging with a central plank of the prelates' 2002 sex abuse policy that involves monitoring provisions. The review board believes annual audits of each diocese to ensure compliance with the policy are required. But bishops from Nebraska to New York are more inclined to let the hierarchy decide on protocol for future audits.

It's almost as if church leaders are betting the sexual abuse scandal will blow over with time. But there's no denying the disgrace and there's no going back.

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