Oakland diocese to apologize for sexual abuse in the church

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) - Terrie Light's memories of being abused by her parish priest are so strong, they've kept her away from Catholic services for years.

But she'll be there Saturday when, in a landmark moment, the Oakland diocese apologizes for past cases of sexual abuse and how they were handled.

The ceremony, part of the Roman Catholic Church's current focus on asking forgiveness for past wrongs, may be one of the first to specifically deal with abuse.

''It's a huge deal,'' says Light. ''I think what's most significant is it allows for a glimmer of hope - that change is possible.''

Unlike many victims of abuse by clergy who keep quiet from shame and fear, Light has spoken out about her case. Sexually assaulted by her pastor as a young girl in the Oakland diocese in the 1950s, she says she buried the event for many years, eventually going to church officials in the early 1990s.

At first she was rebuffed, getting so frustrated that she picketed diocese offices in 1993.

Later, Light discovered that another woman had told the diocese about abuse by the same man, who is now dead.

''I think that maybe provided some of the opening that, ''Oh, gosh, maybe this is true. This has happened,'' she said.

For the past year, Light and other abuse survivors have been working with church officials on reconciliation.

The result is a detailed apology that acknowledges the failure to confront the issue of abuse as ''one of the more distressing aspects of the Church's recent history.''

The statement delivered on behalf of the Oakland diocese asks forgiveness for past, unnamed, cases of abuse in the diocese, which oversees 100 parishes in the east San Francisco Bay area, and elsewhere. The statement also apologizes for what it calls a ''tendency to retreat into denial and self-protection,'' often shunning accusers and merely transferring alleged abusers to new assignments.

The apology will be delivered by Bishop John Cummins not in a church but in the neutral setting of an East Oakland lodge because many victims of abuse by clergy, like Light, find it too painful to enter a church.

The service comes two weeks after Pope John Paul II, in a special Mass, asked God's forgiveness for the sins of Catholics through the ages, including wrongs inflicted on Jews, women, and minorities.

Paul Henderson of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C., said many dioceses are having services of reconciliation to commemorate the third millennium of the church, but he was unaware of another diocese apologizing for sexual abuse.

Light said she has heard from many who plan to attend, including some from Santa Rosa, a diocese some 60 miles north that has been reeling from a series of revelations involving abusive priests and alleged church coverups. In July, Santa Rosa's bishop resigned and admitted a sexual affair with a parish priest.

Some in the Santa Rosa diocese are urging church authorities to fully disclose the priestly misconduct and censure and remove priests from parishes if warranted.

San Francisco Archbishop William Levada has said allegations of misconduct will be investigated and he has also issued a statement apologizing to victims.

On Saturday, Oakland diocese officials will follow up their apology with promises to respond promptly to all allegations of abuse, put the accused offender on leave if there is a probability of sexual misconduct involving minors and report the incident to civil authorities. They also will pledge to make sure that if a priest who has sexually abused children is returned to the ministry after counseling he will not be in contact with children and will be closely monitored.

Light says she'll be watching to see if diocesan officials back up their words. She sees the service as a turning point.

''Here, in one place, people in the church were willing to listen, were willing to do something right.''


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