The Sins Of The Fathers...

Three months ago, Father Tom met a group of 10-year-olds at a hospital in Rhode Island where he was visiting Roman Catholic patients. "Hi, fellas," he said, "how're you doing?" Suddenly, the mother of one of the boys rushed up and grabbed her child. "He's a priest," she warned. "Don't talk to him." Father Tom (who didn't want to be identified) has been ordained for 28 years and has never been closer to clerical abuse than the stories he reads in newspapers. Still, he can't get over the shock he felt that day. "It shakes you up when you've given your life to helping people," he says, "and someone reacts like you are a criminal."

In the worst scandal ever to hit the American Roman Catholic Church, as many as 500 priests, by some estimates, have been accused of sexually molesting children. Already, the church has paid tens of millions of dollars to victims, most of whom were abused decades ago, and it still faces dozens of unsettled lawsuits. Worse, the bishops themselves have been accused by critics of coddling known offenders and hushing up victims who complain. In parishes where children were molested, many Catholic parents are shocked, wary and scandalized. Innocent priests feel tainted by their fallen brethren and subject to unaccustomed scrutiny. Remarkably, however, most Catholics still support their clergy. Like voters, they don't despair of the priesthood because some priests-like some politicians-have betrayed their trust.

How long will this good will last? Much depends on what the bishops themselves do to convince lay Catholics that pedophiles will not be tolerated in the priesthood. Last week Cardinal John J. O'Connor outlined the legal and pastoral procedures the Archdiocese of New York will follow in handling complaints of sexual abuse. But in a separate, 4,000-word "exhortation," O'Connor explained just how long, legally complicated and ethically ambiguous the handling of such cases can be. Some abusive priests are sick and in need of therapy, he acknowledged, and others are sinful and in need of repentance and forgiveness. "We are being profoundly humbled," O'Connor said of the scandals. "All can become suspect, to the degree that some wonderful priests, devoted to young people, are now afraid to be seen with them, fearful of training altar boys, reluctant to coach teams, to take youngsters to camps or otherwise be placed in potentially compromising positions."

Many priests are subtly altering the way they deal with children. At St. Margaret's Church in Pearl River, N.Y., Father William Scafidi administers an elementary school and leads a teenage youth group. Since the scandals broke Scafidi finds that he makes eye contact less often with his charges and doesn't shake hands as readily as he used to. More important, he has increased the number of lay chaperons on youth trips-including one he will lead to Denver next month to see the pope. When some of his adolescents raised questions about the pedophile priests they read about-why would a priest do that, what does God think, how do priests handle celibacy-Scafidi told them that priests aren't perfect but that many are strong and secure in their sexuality." They told me, 'Father Bill, we like you, we trust you'," he says. "That tells me where I am."

_B_'A hug':_b_Despite the scandals, life goes on in many Catholic congregations much as if "Going My Way" were still the standard image of parish life. "Children in kindergarten and first grade still run up and put their arms around me," says Father Dennis O'Neill, pastor of St. Clotilde's parish in Chicago. "When they all pile on me, I don't push them away. I give them a hug and go on my way."

Nonetheless, many parents are now more cautious about what their children do with priests, especially young curates new to the parish. "I think it's too bad that we have to think about these things," says Linda Varro of Minneapolis, whose son is an altar boy. "But I realize that these priests are human." Indeed, even some of the victims have learned to forgive, though they find it impossible to forget. Dana Vyska, who says he was sexually abused by a priest as a child, feels no anxiety for his own 13-year-old son, who is an altar boy at Notre Dame Church in Pittsfield, Mass. "I know what a priest may be like," says the father. Still, he insists, "what happened to me was out of the ordinary."

The long-term damage to the church, however, is still incalculable. Even before the current spate of scandals broke, the number of vocations to the priesthood was in steep decline. Today's priests may outlast the scandals, but the image of the priesthood may never be as bright.