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Catholic Order Head

Jul 18, 2002 | AP

The head of a Roman Catholic religious order said Thursday he was horrified by allegations of child sexual abuse by priests from the order.

Peter Burke, head of the St. John of God Order in Australia and New Zealand, is in the southern city of Christchurch meeting 25 men who claim they were sexually abused in the 1960s and 1970s by priests in a boarding school run by the order.

"I'm absolutely horrified and it's tearing me apart, but I'm determined to deal with it and bring it to some resolution," he told National Radio. "I'm hearing stories of lives that have been devastated," Burke said.

The allegations involved children as young as eight or 10 "which is despicable."

Four priests from the Marylands school have had sex abuse allegations made against them.

The order has already paid 300,000 New Zealand dollars (dlrs 145,000) in compensation to five victims, the group's spokesman Simon Feely told The Associated Press.

Christchurch police said Thursday they had begun taking statements from alleged victims, and have yet to check their records to confirm whether any of the priests were ever prosecuted.

"I'm absolutely horrified to think this tragic and traumatic situation has taken place under our name," said Burke.

The order was determined to deal with the allegations in an open and transparent way, he added. It would not enforce confidentiality clauses in any settlements.

Ken Clearwater, manager of the Male Survivors of Sexual Abuse Trust, praised Burke for his courage in meeting the men, calling it a positive first step.

"Some of these stories sound like something out of a Stephen King book," he said.

The Catholic Church in New Zealand publicly apologized over abuse cases last month, with bishops expressing "grief and shame" over sex abuse by priests and other church members.

The church offered victims an "unreserved" apology. It was the first admission of widespread sexual abuse in the nation's Catholic Church.

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