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Monday, 29 April, 2002, 09:46 GMT 10:46 UK
New Yorkers' test of faith
The Church has been rocked by a series of scandals
test hello test
By Matthew Wells in New York
Roman Catholics in Brooklyn still find it hard to believe priests have been guilty of sexual abuse

Sister Dorothea Jurkowski's eyes are brimming with tears as she tries to recall her scripture precisely: "Jesus says: 'Woe to you if you shall give scandal to my little ones'... This is a scandal. It is the greatest scandal of all time."

Standing in her room at the school where she has been principal for four years, looking tired and drawn at the end of another long week for all those involved in the Catholic church of America, she still finds it bewildering.

I think the people here do feel let down

Philip Van Nostrand
"We are all going to be so much stronger thanks to this crisis," she says.

Sister Dorothea has 388 children aged five to 15 in her charge at the school which services the vast majority of Polish families in the very Polish neighbourhood of Greenpoint, North Brooklyn.

The area, which lies on the other side of the river from Manhattan, has arguably the most ethnically diverse Catholic population in New York.

Butt of jokes

A 10 minute walk from the sister's parish of Saint Stanislaus is the Italian spiritual hub of Mount Carmel.

Another five minutes beyond that, and you are in the noisier but more vibrant Hispanic neighbourhood that is home to Dominicans and Puerto Ricans.

Three communities - all very different and separate, despite their shared religion - are all trying to make sense of their traditions becoming the butt of snide jokes on daytime television this week.

"I think the people here do feel let down, but they see the strength that flows from what we do here, in the parish.

"We've had nothing but good experiences with our pastors," says 26-year-old Philip Van Nostrand, who teaches youngsters at the Northside Catholic Academy.

The church in his Italian neighbourhood provides a daily "food pantry" for the poor - meals distributed by the church door to 30 people a day.

You don't need to be Catholic to qualify.

The church provides a festival attended by thousands in July, when a hundred men lift a giant statue weighing two tonnes - known as the Giglio - and carry it through the streets.

"We've discussed the problems openly and healthily in church. I do feel some of the stories are just unsubstantiated, although there's obviously truth in much of what's been revealed," says Mr Van Nostrand.

Speaking out

But Sister Dorothea has had a different experience.

Thankfully, we are now talking about the victims

Sister Dorothea Jurkowski

She has not been approached by parishioners wanting to talk about the scandal, and she wonders when it will start.

"I think the press have forced the clergy onto the defensive. They've been forced to speak for themselves, and not for the innocent victims.

"Thankfully, we are now talking about the victims."

She shows me a recent letter from the man in charge of all Brooklyn's Catholic faithful, Bishop Thomas Daily, who came under pressure at the beginning of the month for refusing to hand over the names of priest accused of sexual abuse to New York prosecutors.

He reversed his decision within days.

The letter to all church officials in the diocese is aimed at reassuring parishioners the church will no longer be vulnerable to the charge that it covers up sexual abuse.

"I encourage anyone who is experiencing such a terrible burden to report it immediately to church or civil authorities.

'Inaction' condemned

At the other end of North Brooklyn, Mirelys De La Rosa is winding-down her small travel services company for the weekend.

Boy holds sign urging victims to speak out
The Church has been accused of covering up sexual abuse

She came to New York from Dominica 20 years ago, and she has a 12-year-old daughter who is now taking communion.

She is not a regular churchgoer, but the scandal has been a major talking point in her office for the last fortnight.

"Why don't they just let them get married? It's no good - it's too old-fashioned. These men - they have done too little, too late."

Her assistant agrees.

Euripides Santos drops in from his grocery store across the street.

"I think the other religions... some of them are taking advantage of our distress," he says.

See also:

29 Apr 02 | Americas
Brazil cardinal questions celibacy
25 Apr 02 | Americas
US press: Vatican must go further
25 Apr 02 | Europe
Paedophile priests face expulsion
24 Apr 02 | Americas
Analysis: US cardinals get message
16 Apr 02 | Americas
US cardinal welcomes Pope talks
28 Apr 02 | Americas
Scores of US priests forced out
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