The Catholic Church in America

Almost sixty-four-million Christians in the United States belong to the Roman Catholic Church. Sexual wrongdoing by clergymen against children has caused a crisis in the Catholic Church. I'm Mary Tillotson. And I'm Steve Ember. The Catholic Church is our report today on the VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.

Last month, Roman Catholic Church leaders in the United States declared a new policy about sexual wrongdoing by clergymen against children. Those priests found guilty of even one incident of sexual abuse of a child would be barred from all public duties connected to the church. They could no longer take part in the Catholic religious service. However, they would continue to be priests.

Almost three-hundred church leaders approved the new policy at a meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Dallas, Texas. The bishops also apologized to victims of sexual abuse by priests. Several of these victims were at the meeting and told about their sexual abuse by priests.

Pope John Paul is the head of the Roman Catholic Church around the world. Officials in Rome who advise the Pope will now consider the American bishops' new policy. If the officials approve, the American bishops will be expected to enforce it.

In the United States, it is a crime for an adult to have sexual relations with anyone under the age of eighteen. Hundreds of Catholic priests have been accused of having sexual relations with children.

The priests reportedly abused thousands of boys and young men. Some women have also charged priests with sexual wrongdoing. Some of these accusations involve incidents that happened as many as thirty years ago.

Roman Catholic priests are banned from marrying. They are not permitted to have sexual relations of any kind.

For many years, some Catholics have demanded that their bishops take a strong position against sexually abusive priests. These people say some bishops have protected guilty priests while failing to protect the children they harmed.

Victims of sexual crimes by priests have repeatedly demanded apologies from the church. They have demanded justice in the courts. American courts have ordered the Roman Catholic Church to pay millions of dollars in damages to victims.

Many American Catholics are not satisfied with the new policy declared by the bishops. They want priests found guilty of sexual abuse of children to be dismissed as priests. Many Catholics point to the seriousness of the offense and the harm it has done to young victims.

Many American Catholics do not believe the bishops' policy is severe enough. They made this clear in recent opinion studies. In one study, two-thirds of Catholics said they did not believe the new policy would end abuse of children. In another study, almost ninety percent wanted guilty priests dismissed from the priesthood. Almost all of the Catholics in this study said they wanted action by Pope John Paul. They want the Pope to punish bishops who do not act against known abusers.

Roman Catholic bishops govern churches in one-hundred-eleven areas in the United States. One media report says bishops in almost sixty percent of these areas have attempted to hide sex crimes by priests. In at least several cases, the church paid victims large amounts of money. The money was meant to keep the victims from telling the media about what happened to them.

Reports say some bishops sent guilty priests for treatment by mental health experts. But the bishops did not report the crimes to police. Then the bishops sent the priests to work in churches in other cities. They did not warn church members about these priests.

Some law-enforcement officials say these bishops should be punished. They have suggested charging these bishops with aiding a crime.

Some experts say the church has protected guilty priests because it lacks enough priests. The number of Roman Catholic churches in the United States keeps growing. However, the number of men studying to be priests has decreased. Almost thirty percent of Roman Catholic churches do not have a priest serving only one church.

Instead, some priests travel to serve two or more churches.The Catholic Church does not permit women to become priests. However, men who are not priests can perform some church ceremonies. These men are called deacons. They are permitted to be married. Husbands and wives, called parish ministers, also may assist in some ceremonies.

Roman Catholicism has a long history in America. The first Roman Catholics were explorers from Europe. The religion was established before the area became the United States. At times, the British colonies approved anti-Catholic legislation. But Catholics usually could observe their religion freely.

During the nineteenth century, many immigrants came to the United States. Large groups of Catholics came from Germany, Ireland, Austria-Hungary and Poland. Historians say Irish-Americans became the most influential Catholics by the beginning of the twentieth century. By that time, the Catholic Church in America was becoming increasingly strong.

Catholics established their own schools for young children. These schools became known for excellent education. The church also established high schools and colleges. For example, Catholic University opened in Washington, D.C in eighteen-eighty-seven.

Over the years, many Catholic aid groups have assisted millions of people who are poor, sick or old. These aid groups have helped people of all religions.

Catholics sometimes suffered mistreatment by other Americans. But as time passed, many Catholics gained important positions. For example, Roman Catholics were elected to positions of power in big cities like New York, Boston, Massachusetts and Chicago, Illinois. In nineteen-sixty, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was the first Roman Catholic elected president of the United States.

American Catholics share beliefs with Roman Catholics around the world. They believe Jesus Christ established the church. They believe their church has kept and continued his teachings over the years.

Still, Catholic churches in the United States have established some traditions all their own. For example, some churches use folk and other kinds of music during their masses. Many churches hold special dinners, parties and game events for their members. Some have sports teams for adults as well as children. Committees of members advise the priest about local church administration.

The activities of Catholic churches in America require many millions of dollars. Church officials are concerned about gaining enough money for all these activities. This concern has deepened since reports of sexual crimes by priests have appeared in the media. Some Catholics are not giving as much money to their church as they did in the past.

The crisis also has helped increase debate about two other issues. For years, some American Catholics have urged that priests be permitted to marry. A number of Catholics also say women should be able to become priests.

Those opposed to these proposals say they would violate church tradition. However, supporters say such changes would help increase the number of priests and ease the shortage. They also believe the changes might help prevent sexual offenses by priests. They say that most Protestant Christian churches permit their clergy to marry.

In addition, a number of Protestant churches have female priests or ministers. These churches report far fewer cases of sexual abuse by clergy than the Catholic Church.

In recent public opinion studies, few Catholics say the crisis about priests would cause them to leave the church. Loyal American Catholics praise the rich spiritual life they gain from their church and its religious service, the mass. However, many Catholics now say they want more influence in church life. They want church officials to consider their opinions about important issues.

A high school teacher from the Middle West has been active in his Catholic church for twenty years. He says members want bishops to continue to advise them in spiritual life. But he believes the unquestioned leadership by the bishops is over.

This program was written by Jerilyn Watson. It was produced by George Grow. I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Mary Tillotson. Join us again next week for another report about life in the United States on the VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.