CLEVELAND (AP) - A former attorney for the city's Roman Catholic Diocese accuses the church of being more concerned about preserving its image than helping victims of abuse by priests.

Santiago Feliciano Jr., 50, of Munson Township, worked for the diocese for 22 years, mostly as its lead lawyer, before leaving two years ago to enter private practice.

Feliciano told The Plain Dealer he was forced out by diocesan officials who considered him too victim-oriented and not respectful enough of priests suspected of sexual abuse.

"I was more concerned about abused children and their families," Feliciano said. "The bishops were more concerned about the institution. They said I was inviting lawsuits."

Diocesan spokesman Bob Tayek declined to address Feliciano's allegations. But he said he found them curious in light of an article that Feliciano wrote for the Catholic Universe Bulletin in 1992 praising Bishop Anthony Pilla's handling of sex-abuse cases.

Feliciano declined to comment on Wednesday. Tayek and Bishop Anthony Pilla were in Dallas on Wednesday for a meeting of the nation's bishops and were unavailable for comment.

Since the late 1980s, Feliciano's responsibilities had included meeting with alleged clergy-abuse victims and their families, interviewing the suspects and providing counseling at churches and schools where the alleged abuse occurred.

Feliciano said he witnessed a change in the way the diocese handled child sex-abuse allegations from the early 1990s until he left in 2000. It became tougher and less pastoral toward the victims, he said, and more inclined to care for the alleged abusers.

"Sometimes, if the priests would deny the victims allegations, I wouldn't believe them and I would tell them as much to their faces," Feliciano said. "Bishop Pilla criticized me for being too disrespectful of the priests. After that, they only allowed me to handle cases involving lay employees."

Feliciano said that Auxiliary Bishop A. James Quinn, a lawyer trained in civil and church law, has directed the diocese's legal defense strategies against child sex-abuse allegations for years.

In an earlier interview, Quinn said the diocese and its lawyers have complied with the law and dealt ethically and pastorally with all alleged victims.

Since April, Pilla has suspended 12 priests accused in the past of sexually abusing minors. He also has identified 13 former or retired priests who were the subject of abuse allegations.

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