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LI Catholics react to Pope Francis' letter on sex-abuse scandal

Many say it's a welcome step in the crisis, while others say they want to see more action against those who were complicit.

Pope Francis speaks to journalists aboard a flight

Pope Francis speaks to journalists aboard a flight from Mexico to Italy in February 2016. Some Long Islanders praised the pope's letter denouncing clergy sexual abuse, but others thought his words were not enough. Photo Credit: AFP / Getty Images / Alessandro Di Meo

Some Long Island Catholics on Monday praised as a step in the right direction Pope Francis’ letter condemning sexual abuse by priests, while others contended it is meaningless until he takes direct action, such as removing bishops.

In an unprecedented letter to the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics — including the 1.5 million on Long Island — Francis said the church had not dealt properly with “crimes” against children and must prevent sexual abuses from being “covered up and perpetuated.”

“We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them,” Francis wrote. 

The 2,000-word letter, the first by a pope addressed to the world’s Catholics on the topic of sexual abuse, follows last week's release of a grand jury report in Pennsylvania detailing the  alleged sexual abuse of at least 1,000 children by 300 priests over a 70-year span in that state.

Francis’ letter was “great,” said Don Zirkel, 91, a deacon in the Catholic church who lives at Dominican Village in Amityville. The pope said “no effort should be spared” in protecting children from clergy sex abuse, Zirkel said. “You can’t get much stronger than that. I 100-percent agree.”

Zirkel said it was particularly welcome after Francis was slow to recognize an abuse scandal in Chile. “I thought he absolutely blew it” regarding the Chile controversy, said Zirkel, who is also affiliated with Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Catholic Church in Wyandanch and is a former editor of The Tablet, diocesan newspaper published in Brooklyn.

John Salveson, who says he was sexually abused by a priest at St. Dominic parish in Oyster Bay starting in 1969 when he was 13 years old, said he found Francis’ words empty.

“Talk is cheap. And this just echoes what his predecessors and others have said,” said Salveson, who now lives in Pennsylvania and heads the Foundation to Abolish Child Sex Abuse, a nonprofit advocacy group.

“If he wants to fix it, he should excommunicate the bishops and cardinals who allowed it to continue. And then maybe he’ll seem serious," Salveson said. "Right now he doesn’t seem serious to this survivor.”

Sister Mary Beth Moore, who heads the Centro Corazon de Maria Hispanic outreach program in Hampton Bays, said she believes Francis is a “good and holy man,” and so are most priests.

“And yet, the practice of the church demands that only male celibates be priests. The Catholic Church is led by men who insist that the ordinary and healthy path to human intimacy is forbidden to priests, and that half of all Catholics — women, of course — are barred from participating in significant policy changes,” Moore said.

“For me, this institutional blind spot compromises any promise that those in authority in the Catholic Church may make," she said.

Frank Russo, a longtime parishioner at St. Peter of Alcantara in Port Washington, said: “I’m very happy he’s done this. You have to report problems. No cover-up.”

Still, he said that despite the intense focus on sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church, the problem also extends into secular schools and other institutions. “No one is talking about these problems,” he said.

Richard Tollner, 59, who alleged he was abused by a priest in the Diocese of Rockville Centre when he was a boy, said the pope’s letter is “insufficient.”

“Over the years they’ve always said they were going to watch out for the kids and protect them from abuses and protect the kids from having this happen again,” said Tollner, who now lives in Albany. But “they never called their own bishops out to say, ‘Act on the complaints.’ They address them, they apologize, they mea culpa it. But you never saw bishops around the United States, with the exception of very, very few, actually do something about past abuse, recognize it." 

Patricia O’Neill, a longtime parishioner at St. Agnes parish in Rockville Centre, said the pope’s letter was “terrific,” especially after some earlier comments that she thought were off-target.

“At last, Pope Francis has directly addressed us, his faithful, about the sinful abuse of power and concealment among ‘clerics and consecrated persons’ seeking to retain their coveted status in the church,” she said. “Francis has the responsibility to remove errant bishops from their self-imposed fiefdoms and restore credibility to the faithful.”

Bishop John Barres of the Diocese of Rockville Centre said he was "extremely moved" by the pope’s letter.

"He confronts the horror, atrocity and culture of death of clergy sexual abuse and our responsibility to be instruments of the Holy Spirit to uproot it from the life of the Church," Barres said. 

He praised the pope's call for solidarity among all in the church "to get involved in caring for survivors, preventing future abuse, and ensuring that bishops and all leaders in the Church do what the Lord Jesus and the People of God both expect of them in eradicating these abominations against those they are ordained to serve, sanctify and even die for."

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