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Bishop To Seek Out 5 Who Claim Abuse Diocese Leader Offers Apology To Men Who Say Priest Fondled Them

Apr 26, 2002 | Mercury News The spiritual leader of 400,000 Roman Catholics would like to apologize to five men who say they were sexually abused as boys by their San Jose parish priest during the 1970s.

``I'm going to try and get in contact with them and invite them to come in,'' Bishop Patrick J. McGrath said Thursday. ``I want to talk to them.

``First of all, I'll listen,'' said McGrath, the bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Jose. ``And then I'll apologize to them for the hurt that's been done. God, that's the least I can do.''

The men said in the Mercury News on Thursday that their popular priest, the late Rev. Joseph T. Pritchard, fondled them and other boys who attended the St. Martin of Tours parish school. They kept that secret for a quarter century -- until the sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church erupted and they decided to come forward.

So far, 10 men have spoken to a reporter about the incidents, though only five have allowed their names to be published.

One of the most outspoken former students, 37-year-old John Salberg, said he welcomed the bishop's offer and would accept it, but hopes the diocese will also send a letter to families who had children enrolled in the school at the time.

``I think it's a huge step forward and it's very encouraging,'' Salberg said of the bishop's statement.

``There are five more people who called me today, who told me they were molested,'' Salberg said Thursday. He also said that one man had criticized him for encouraging people to speak out publicly.

``Our position is not an attack on the church,'' Salberg said. ``I love the church.''

McGrath has said that he does not want to send letters to all former St. Martin students because it could infringe on the privacy of those who don't want to be involved.

But the bishop did invite all victims of sexual abuse in the diocese to contact him. ``I'm a priest for 32 years,'' he said, ``and it's very painful for me to see people suffering as they are.

``I don't know if people believe it anymore, but I will say it again: We must get to the bottom of this. It must be resolved.''

McGrath made his comments during an hourlong conversation at his home in San Jose's Naglee Park neighborhood, and also touched on the upcoming June meeting of the nation's bishops in Dallas.

He said he expects the bishops when they convene to adopt a new, rigorous set of national guidelines for the handling of sexual abuse cases. McGrath plans to attend that meeting.

``I would like to see that there is a national policy binding every diocese,'' he said. ``And I would like to see some kind of oversight group or office to make sure that the guidelines are in every diocese and that they are followed. There must be accountability.''

If the men who say they were abused by Pritchard in the '70s agree to meet with him, McGrath said, he will offer them any psychological counseling they might need. Asked if he was worried that this or other cases might result in serious financial fallout for the diocese as a result of lawsuits, he said, ``Believe it or not, no. We have to deal with it as a church, no matter what.''

McGrath has disclosed six cases involving sex abuse allegations or criminal charges against six priests in the diocese over the past 25 or more years.

McGrath conceded that his duties as bishop have come to include matters that he never dreamed about before his appointment as bishop in 1999. ``It's absolutely exhausting,'' he said about the effects of the sex abuse crisis.

``But that's my job . . . My calendar is very impacted. I go from one meeting to another and if they don't bring it up,'' he said, referring to sexual abuse, ``I bring it up. Because I want us to talk about it. I don't want it to be the ghost in the room that no one ever mentions.''

McGrath also discussed ``zero tolerance'' for abusing priests. Under that proposed policy, which was debated by U.S. cardinals in Rome this week, one sexual abuse offense could result in a priest being defrocked. McGrath said he understood the policy's appeal, but wondered if it would rid the church of problem priests while putting ``pedophiles out into society on the street. Is that the best course?''

He said he hopes for a helpful discussion of this in Dallas, along with deliberations and policy decisions about the handling of pedophiles as well as those who abuse teens.

``I would most certainly never put a pedophile back into ministry. Ever,'' McGrath said. ``I'm not going to do anything that would be contradictory to my conscience no matter what comes out of the meeting in June.''

Many of the sex abuse cases that have come to light around the country involve priests who abuse teens. Psychologists have suggested that these offenders are more successfully treated than pedophiles, who abuse young children. Still, McGrath said, ``I would be uncomfortable reassigning anybody'' who abuses teens, ``no matter what the doctors say. But I want to see what will be in the conference in June. I don't want to close the doors to a discussion.''

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