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US Catholic priests under siege amid sex abuse crisis

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
Cardinal Blase Cupich (C) presides over a Simbang Gabi Mass at the Old St. Mary's Catholic Church in Chicago, Illinois, on December 20, 2018. (Getty images)

US priests say revelations of sexual abuse by clergyman in the Catholic Church has placed them under siege and is complicating their lives and those of their fellow priests across the United States.

The long-running crisis arising from sex abuse committed by US priests has caused many honorable priests to sense an erosion of public support and to question the leadership of some of their bishops.

The abuse has weighed on the entire Catholic clergy in the US, according to The Associated Press, citing interviews of priests and some of their psychological caregivers.

That dismay is often compounded by increased workloads due to the priest shortage, and increased isolation, the AP said in its report.

Extreme physical and emotional exhaustion has been rising among priests as the sex abuse crisis persists and many parishioners lose trust in Catholic leadership, said Thomas Plante, a psychology professor at California’s Santa Clara University who has screened or treated hundreds of Catholic clerics.

“You’re just trying to be a good priest and now everyone thinks you’re a sex offender,” he said. “If you walk in a park with your collar on, people think you’re on the lookout for children. ... Some have been spat upon.”

The Reverend Mark Stelzer is among those trying to persevere. He’s a professor at a Roman Catholic college near Springfield, Massachusetts. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield, like many across the US, has a long history of sex-abuse scandals.

Stelzer, 66, had hoped the abuse crisis was abating but it resurfaced dramatically over the past two years.

“It opened up an old wound, and now we’re back to ground zero,” Stelzer said in an interview with the AP at the College of Our Lady of the Elms.

In 1980, the Springfield diocese had more than 300 priests serving 136 parishes. Since then, the ranks of priests have shrunk by more than half and nearly 60 of the parishes have closed.

For the priests, it means many more funerals to handle, including dozens related to drug overdoses and heavy alcohol drinking.

The wound is self-inflicted, said Reverend Philip Schmitter, 74, who has served for 50 years in Flint, Michigan. “This cover up, this ‘Let’s protect the institution’ was just a heinous, utterly unchristian kind of behavior,” he said.

Reverend William Tourigny, the pastor of St. Rose de Lima Church, says many Catholics now mistrust the church hierarchy because of the flawed response to the abuse scandals.

“I was ordained at a time when the church was so alive — there was so much optimism,” he said. “Then things began to change quickly. It has changed the way people look at us. The church has lost credibility and it’s hard to get credibility back again.”

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