Priests in Exile Dismay Lingers over Abuse Charges in Belleville Diocese

Article excerpt

ST. TERESA CHURCH in Belleville glows with yellow ribbons - on the church doors, on trees outside the church, on parishioners' cars parked for Sunday Mass.

The ribbons signal support for the Rev. Louis Peterson, who stepped down as pastor in January amid allegations that he sexually abused a boy.

He professed his innocence, as do many at the parish, and they want him back.

"Too many people (are) coming out with false stories and trying to get money from the church," said one woman attending church on a recent Sunday. She wouldn't give her name, but said, "It's got to stop."

"It" started in March 1993 - a stunning series of allegations of sexual abuse by Belleville diocese clerics. The Rev. James Margason, the diocese's vicar general, said the disclosures came "almost every couple of weeks" for several months last year.

In separate incidents going back three decades, nine priests and a deacon were said to have molested adolescent boys. Most recently, three priests added their voices to a chorus of more than 30 accusers, claiming they, too, had been molested.

The diocese removed eight priests and the deacon from their jobs while it investigated charges against them. Only Peterson, the ninth priest, left voluntarily.

One by one, the priests dropped from sight. One by one, from embarrassingly public diocesan announcements, congregations learned that their spiritual leaders were suspected of committing grievous sins. Parishioners reacted with disbelief. Some congregations went into something like mourning.

Doubts of all kinds linger as investigations drag on, having failed so far to clear any of the 10. Belleville Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, who took over the diocese three months ago, is reviewing all the cases and has yet to determine the priests' fate. He has given no indication of when he might do so. `SO MANY, SO QUICKLY'

Nine priests are 8 percent of the diocese's complement of 110, a higher percentage than experts' highest estimates of the national average of sexually abusive priests. The Conference of Bishops says 2 percent of priests are at least potential abusers of pre-pubescent children.

Dr. A.W. Richard Sipe, a psychotherapist with Johns Hopkins University and a former priest who has specialized in priests' sexual disorders, estimates that 6 percent of all priests have abused minors, including teen-agers.

But Margason said Belleville looks worse than average only because "we got so many (cases) so quickly." After the diocese set up a policy, a review board and a hot-line number for abuse cases, "people started reporting incidents," he said.

In addition, Belleville has been more public about sex abuse allegations and investigations than most dioceses in the country. Openness is catching on with a growing number of the 188 U.S. Catholic dioceses publicly removing priests accused of sex abuse.

Those dioceses, which include Chicago, think candor - as wrenching as it may be - beats silence in the face of swirling rumors and suspicions, said Msgr. Francis Maniscalco, a spokesman for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. `COULDN'T BELIEVE IT'

Disclosures in the last few years have left an impression that child abuse among the nation's 53,000 Catholic priests has reached epidemic proportions. Several situations far eclipse Belleville's on the sensationalism scale. The Archdiocese of Santa Fe faces 41 lawsuits seeking a total of $50 million in damages over sex abuse allegations. Church officials estimate that over 30 years, from 45 to 50 priests there abused as many as 200 people.

Last December, an investigation found that 11 Franciscan monks in a seminary at Santa Barbara, Calif., had abused 34 boys over 23 years. And in Massachusetts, Minnesota and Santa Fe, lawsuits have named James Porter - now in prison - as the abuser of dozens of children while he was a priest. …