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Tuesday, January 7, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Colman Mccarthy

Notre Dame Priest Leads Procession Of Shame

Washington Post Writers Group

WASHINGTON - For much of his 25 years of priestly service at the University of Notre Dame, Father James Burtchaell had enjoyed a national reputation as a theologian, professor and writer. Few churchmen were as vehement in condemning abortion. The Holy Cross priest, who was the university provost for a time, wrote and preached on marriage and relationships.

Last month, Burtchaell earned visibility for relationships of his own. Allegations of his sexual misconduct were revealed. It became known that he had been asked to leave Notre Dame for what an official of the Holy Cross order called "the personal tragedy a teacher and scholar brought on himself." Apologies were extended by the official "to those who may have been hurt."

One of the hurt has been heard from. A gay Notre Dame student, writing in the current "Common Sense," a monthly published at the university, tells of placing his trust in Burtchaell as a "spiritual adviser." The priest's idea of advice led, according to the student, to "intimate contact," from naked massages to shared beds. That was in the mid-1980s. The student, now taking graduate courses at the school, reports that in early 1991, "I discovered that I was almost certainly not the only person Burtchaell had counseled into bed."

By itself, the Notre Dame affair - or affairs -isn't enough to rate more than a momentary "oh my" at one priest's betrayal of trust, or what Burtchaell calls "a default" in his clerical

responsibilities. But the Notre Dame case, like Father Bruce Ritter's in 1989, is part of a larger story of sexual abuse of minors by priests that has been slowly making its way, like a procession of shame, out of the rectory onto the front pages.

Led by the National Catholic Reporter, whose persistent and reliable investigative articles throughout the 1980s were early alerts that the church has a major problem, the secular media are now paying attention. The current Vanity Fair quotes Jason Berry, author of a coming book on pedophile priests, on the economic costs of litigation, victim compensation and therapy. "Roughly $300 million has been paid by church officials and insurers since 1985 in cases of priests abusing children and adolescents." In those six years, some 200 cases have been reported to the Vatican embassy in Washington.

These unheavenly revelations have been surfacing at the same time that church leaders -from Pope John Paul II in Rome to Cardinal John O'Connor in New York - have been using their pulpits to instruct the world on the sinfulness of abortion, contraception and the promiscuity that leads to AIDS. If only a portion of this holy wrath were directed at the church's own sexual disasters, perhaps a few more altar boys or students would have less to fear when Father leaves the sanctuary.

Instead of imposing their moral authority in-house, church officials have been mostly using their ecclesiastical power to evade or cover up the scandals. Whether the problem involves sickness, immorality or crime, leaders in the Catholic hierarchy have yet to formulate a national policy. Only a few bishops and dioceses - the exceptions - have aired the problem publicly. The hierarchy meets annually in Washington to issue papers on war and peace, the economy and why women shouldn't be priests, but so far nothing has come forth on priests and sex offenses.

"The image offered," writes Tom Fox of the National Catholic Reporter, "is that of an institution focused on itself and not on its pastoral mission." The Burtchaell case at Notre Dame is an example of image overcoming responsibility. Early last month, the Holy Cross order declined further comment, an official saying, "We prayerfully seek closure and the healing we hope it will bring to all affected." A Notre Dame public-relations official denounced the National Catholic Reporter for resorting to "tabloid" journalism in reporting the Burtchaell story. Instead, the official, in a gushing and praising letter to the paper that read as if it were promoting the priest's canonization, extolled Burtchaell for his "uncompromising integrity" and "unremitting devotion to those in need." As a "teacher, a counselor, a confessor and an advocate for the voiceless and vulnerable, he has no equals." It sounds like the second coming of Knute Rockne.

Too many children and families have been wounded by sex-abusing priests for the issue to be cleansed by a few sprinkles of holy water statements. Many at Notre Dame are pressing forward - rightly - to hold university officials accountable for Burtchaell's behavior, which allegedly has been known for more than a decade. The student betrayed by the priest demands to know "why they did nothing to stop this misguided man."

Until answers are supplied, at both the university and in all dioceses where charges are brought, the church's teaching and preaching on sexual morality ought to be put on hold.

(Copyright, 1992, Washington Post Writers Group)

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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