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Tuesday, 5 December, 2000, 13:23 GMT
Paedophile accusations trouble the church

Police are investigating allegations of child abuse at a high-profile Catholic school in London. It is the latest in a long line of abuse cases to tarnish the Church's image.

There was a time when, almost without exception, a priest was regarded as a respected member of the community.

Today, the news that yet another cleric has been accused of sexually abusing children is not uncommon.

There is mistrust between parishioners and their priest, the general public and priests

John Wilkins
Police and social workers are investigating allegations of child abuse at the London Oratory School. While Prime Minister Tony Blair's teenage sons are pupils, there is no suggestion that either is involved.

At least six pupils have made claims against the former chaplain, Father David Martin, who died of a suspected Aids-related illness two years ago.

Speaking to BBC News Online earlier this year, John Wilkins, editor of Catholic weekly The Tablet, said the image of the Church has been tarnished "appallingly" by paedophile priests around the world.

"It has done enormous damage to priests themselves - their morale is very low. They feel depressed and defensive.

"It has been appalling for Church - there is mistrust between parishioners and their priest, the general public and priests."

Sacked by Pope

Since 1994, the Catholic Church has had strict child protection procedures.

A string of allegations led to tough child protection rules
Previously, a suspected paedophile priest would probably have been shuffled sideways to another parish.

Today, the church authorities inform the police, move the alleged abuser to a safe house, and suspend him or her from pastoral duties.

Last October, Pope John Paul II sacked Father John Lloyd, who raped a 16-year-old girl and indecently assaulted two altar boys in south Wales - the first such dismissal of a British priest in recent history.

The Pope dismissed American three priests in 1998, and sacked two diocesan priests in Ireland in recent years.

Convicted priests
Father Eugene Greene, abused altar boys in Ireland
Father Adrian McLeish, abused parishoners' sons in Durham and boasted on the internet
Father Eric Taylor, assaulted children in Father Hudson's Homes
Father James Murphy, assaulted boys at south London parishes
Yet Mr Wilkins questioned whether those at the top of the church hierarchy take the issue seriously enough.

The Pope has twice received the former archbishop of Vienna, Hans Hermann Groer, at the Vatican, despite allegations that he had sexually molested young clergymen.

Yet in September, Archbishop Murphy-O'Connor apologised after accusations that the Church had, in the past, tried to cover up child abuse.

He also set up an independent panel to review the way such cases are handled.

The archbishop had earlier faced calls to resign when it emerged that he had allowed paedophile priest Father Michael Hill to continue working, despite warnings he would re-offend.

Global problem

In Ireland, the government has launched an inquiry into allegations of abuse at so-called industrial schools, where children were detained if their parents were deemed too poor to look after them, or if they stole or played truant.

The 52 schools, run by Catholic religious orders and backed by the government, closed in the 1970s.

Losing faith
4,257,789 Catholics in England and Wales in 1980; 4,189,550 in 1998
Mass attendance: 1.3m in 1988; 1.05m in 1998
Priests: 7,021 in 1988; 5,600 in 1998
Catholic Directory figures
Campaigners say the priests and nuns subjected most of the children in their care to physical or sexual attacks.

Following these and other allegations made during the 1990s, the Christian Brothers, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate and the Sisters of Mercy have issued public apologies for abuse inflicted over the years in their institutions.

The Christian Brothers have also been implicated in Canada. More than 300 former pupils at Mount Cashel orphanage, Newfoundland, have alleged the lay brothers sexually abused them.

The scandal forced the order to sell property and assets to pay legal and compensation bills.

Although Mr Wilkins said it would be difficult to link such scandals to the falling numbers attending mass, "it certainly won't put attendance up".

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