San Luis Obispo's Catholic churches retain support

As faithful Catholics attend church this Holy Week, a wave of fresh criticism has emerged worldwide over the church’s handing of alleged child sex abuse by priests.

In San Luis Obispo County, parishioners and pastors condemn the alleged actions of abusive priests but continue to support their local churches and practice their faith.

“I don’t see our people as being terribly, shall we say, shaken in their faith,” said the Rev. Victor Abegg of the St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church in Pismo Beach, “in great part because I’ve always said to them: ‘Don’t let the actions of a few people determine the direction of your life.’ ”

Media outlets including The New York Times have reported in recent weeks about new revelations of clerical abuse in Europe and scrutiny of Pope Benedict XVI’s handling of abuse cases when he was the archbishop of Munich.

If local parishes are having a difficult time easing the concerns of their congregations, the diocese hasn’t heard about it, said Warren Hoy, spokesman for the Diocese of Monterey.

“It is a Vatican-level issue, and here at the diocesan level, we are not really commenting one way or another,” Hoy said. “It is a level beyond our pay grade, if you will.”

Hoy said it seems that many local Catholics are taking the latest news in stride as “another step in an ongoing discussion of the issue.”

The Rev. Russ Brown at Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa said that while he hasn’t heard a flurry of concern from the church’s more than 2,000-member congregation, he plans to reach out to parishioners who have been abused or are pained about the recent issues raised abroad.

“We want to extend the invitation for help or further discussion — not just wait for people to come to us,” Brown said.

A growing chorus has started clamoring worldwide for the church to embrace full transparency, take a hard line against pedophiles and reconsider the rule of priestly celibacy.

“When you limit your pool of applications for a job, your pool is going to reflect that,” Mary Alice Altorfer of Paso Robles said, referring to the issue of who can become a priest. “You mean there aren’t men and women who, if they weren’t married, wouldn’t be a great leader? It’s foolish.”

Altorfer was raised in Catholic schools but stopped going to church in the 1990s. While she pays attention to the good things the church does, Altorfer believes the church has covered up cases and perpetuated the problem by moving priests around instead of bringing them to justice.

“It’s called accountability,” said Craig Kelso of Paso Robles, who attends Mass at the Mission San Miguel. “I really believe that in these counties where it’s happening, they should find them, defrock them, and they should be prosecuted.”

To Kelso, a retired teacher, the actions of a few priests demean the many priests and nuns who have dedicated their lives to service.

Abegg said the last decade has been difficult, in part “because all sorts of people immediately put you in the same cubbyhole with the very small number of people among priests who in fact have been abusive.”

Patrick Meissner of Atascadero, who attends St. Rose of Lima in Paso Robles, said the media should also report what other things the pope “had on his plate” several decades ago when alleged abusers were allowed to continue serving in ministry.

According to The New York Times, a senior church official early this year acknowledged that a German archdiocese had made “serious mistakes” in handling an abuse case while the pope served as its archbishop.

The archdiocese said a priest who was accused of molesting boys was given therapy in 1980 and later allowed to resume pastoral duties before committing further abuse and being prosecuted and convicted.

Pope Benedict, who at the time headed the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising, approved the priest’s transfer for therapy. A subordinate took full responsibility for allowing the priest to later resume pastoral work, the archdiocese said in a statement.

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, told The New York Times he had no comment beyond the statement by the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising, which he said showed the “nonresponsibility” of the pope in the matter.

In another case, documents emerged in March that top Vatican officials, including the future pope, did not defrock an American priest, the Rev. Lawrence C. Murphy, who molested as many as 200 deaf boys at a school in Wisconsin.

The Vatican has fired back at the reports of clerical sex abuse cases in several European counties published in Western media, but the pope has not publicly addressed the crisis this week.

Catholics’ reaction to the latest news could cause the church’s membership to shrink — or it may not affect it at all, surmised Devin Kuhn, a Cal Poly assistant professor of religious studies and women’s and gender studies.

“I think you’ll have people who are really appalled and heartbroken ... and want to leave the church or seriously see some reform,” Kuhn said. “And you might also see people want to rally around Catholicism in response to a perceived media bias.”

A recent report from the Vatican showed an increase of several hundred priests a year since 2000, thanks to large increases in congregations in Africa and Asia.

The 2010 “Annuario Pontificio,” or Pontifical Yearbook, presented in February to Benedict also shows the percentage of Catholics worldwide remaining stable, at about 17.3 percent of the global population.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.