Bishop alludes to church tragedies in Christmas message

CLEVELAND (AP) - The bishop of the Cleveland Roman Catholic Diocese said in his written Christmas message Monday that God is still present in church leaders and members even when they injure others.

Bishop Anthony M. Pilla alluded to the diocese's difficult year in which 15 priests have been placed on administrative leave because of sex abuse allegations. The diocese also lost one priest in a homicide and another in a suicide.

"Unlike any previous Christmas, particularly within our community of the Church, I sense that we have new and deeper insight into the frailty of our human condition," Pilla wrote in the message sent to churches in the eight-county diocese. "I believe the pain and suffering that we have witnessed give us cause to look into the manger with fresh eyes, wide open to just how frail a humanity Jesus took upon Himself."

Pilla added "that God remains with us in this lowly broken form."

In May, Pilla said priests guilty of sexual abuse against a child would be banned from the ministry. Fifteen priests were placed on administrative leave pending investigation of allegations against them.

The Rev. Donald Rooney killed himself in April after Pilla summoned him to discuss an abuse allegation against him.

Earlier this month, a retired priest and six former employees of a church-run home for troubled youth were indicted on sex abuse charges.

On Dec. 7, the church was rocked by the killing of the Rev. William Gulas, who was shot and burned in his rectory office at St. Stanislaus Church. A Franciscan brother in training at the parish has been charged in the crime.

Pilla said, "when Church leaders and members injure, fail, sin or act self-servingly it is more difficult to admit but nonetheless true that God Himself and His mission are present and at work in these limited and confusing expressions."

Jeffrey R. Anderson, a St. Paul, Minn., attorney who has represented victims in hundreds of church sex abuse cases, said he was saddened by Pilla's message.

"That's kind of a form of denial. It's disappointing," Anderson said. "That doesn't sound like much of a healing message at such a sacred time."

Barbara Blaine, leader of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests in Chicago, said it sounds like Pilla is calling for forgiveness.

"We still need a strong commitment for a change in the behaviors that brought about so much pain and devastation to the victims and the families and their parishes," she said.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)