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Catholic church at crossroads in Milwaukee

By John Rondy

MILWAUKEE (Reuters) - Stung by fresh charges of priestly sexual abuse and allegations of a cover-up that reach the Vatican, the Roman Catholic church in the United States faces a crisis of empty pews and empty coffers.

Attendance was down noticeably at some Easter Sunday services in Milwaukee, reflecting the litany of troubles facing the U.S. church and a torrent of criticism over its handling of abuse cases.

"The church is at a crossroads," said Tim Flanner, 51, a member of St. John Vianney church. "There are people who are really ticked off, and there are a lot of them.

"The church needs to address its own failures, acknowledge its own guilt, and ask for forgiveness, and heal as a family," he said.

Last month, amid explosive charges that a now-dead priest molested some 200 boys at a school for the deaf over more than two decades, Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome Listecki apologized to the victims and acknowledged the church was wrong to not defrock the priest, Rev. Lawrence Murphy.

But beyond the church's tarnished reputation, the financial fallout from paying settlement claims to victims is being felt in Milwaukee and dioceses across the United States.

Four lawsuits are pending in Milwaukee, and the diocese has put its headquarters, the Cousins Center, up for sale to help pay $27 million in settlement costs that have threatened to bankrupt the diocese.

The cost to U.S. Catholic dioceses over the past five years of settling U.S. sex abuse cases involving priests totaled $1.97 billion, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University in Washington.

Meanwhile, the Milwaukee diocese has seen its congregations shrink by 5 percent over the past two years to fewer than 644,000 parishioners.

Overall, there are 65 million U.S. Catholics, a population stabilized by an influx of Latino immigrants. About 22 percent of U.S. adults claim to be Catholic.

But one in 10 U.S. adults are former Catholics, and those leaving the church outnumber converts by four-to-one, according to a study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

"There is no other religious group we've looked at where we see that kind of ratio of people leaving versus people joining," said Pew research fellow Greg Smith.

More than half of former Catholics left because they stopped believing in the church's teachings, the study found.

Another troubling trend is the thinning ranks of priests.

The ranks of U.S. priests has shrunk by 40 percent from a high of 35,000 in 1966, and the decline will not level off until 2015, said sociologist Lawrence Young of the University of Idaho, co-author of "Full Pews and Empty Altars."

The abuse crisis has deterred young men from entering the priesthood, Young said, creating "a real crisis for the church as it tries to recruit."

CASES MOUNT

There is no sign of the crisis abating. Minnesota attorney Jeffrey Anderson said he has represented thousands of abuse victims, including Murphy's victims, and is now working on more than one hundred cases.

A report commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops found that 4 percent of all American priests who served between 1950 and 2002 had allegations of sexual abuse substantiated against them.

Many of the abuse cases date back decades, with 71 percent alleged to have occurred between 1960 and 1984, the center at Georgetown University said.

Victims' rights groups assert the Vatican office headed by Pope Benedict during the mid-1990s failed to act on abuse cases even when local church authorities asked for guidance.

The Vatican's response that the current pope has done much to alleviate suffering and that the cover-up allegations amount to a "smear campaign" by the media, has angered many victims.

Patrick Whelan, head of the liberal Boston-based group Catholic Democrats, said Rome's reaction is a tactical error reminiscent of former President Richard Nixon's handling of the Watergate scandal. Revelations of a cover-up of Watergate misdeeds eventually forced Nixon to resign.

"I think it hurts the church dramatically. I think the worst is probably yet to come," Whelan said.

"The church was so anxious to hold on to every last priest that they went to great lengths to try and counsel and rehabilitate these priests. I think in the larger scheme of things, the church has lost it's moral voice," he said.

Still, no one suggested the pope should resign.

Sister Mary Rose Accetturo, a Franciscan nun with Sisters for Christian Community in Milwaukee, said the church needs to change the way it handles priest sex abuse cases.

"To me the greatest pain in this is not the abuse, it's the cover-up, it's the lies," Accetturo said. "Am I disappointed in my institution? Yes. People are leaving the church.

"We can't erase the past, but we can take responsibility and go forward," she said. "We are talking about forgiveness and reconciliation. Money is not going to do it. Money is not going to heal the heart."

(Editing by Andrew Stern and Philip Barbara)

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