ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - The Roman Catholic Church has been dealt recent setbacks in two statehouses that both friends and foes attribute to the church's preoccupation with the clergy sex abuse scandal.

Legislative chambers in Massachusetts and New York - states where the sex scandal is perhaps most intense - have approved bills requiring institutions affiliated with the church to cover prescription birth control in health insurance policies for many employees.

The church opposes artificial birth control and Catholic lobbyists in the past had fought successfully against the measures. They were caught by surprise in New York when the state Senate abandoned its long-standing opposition to the contraception coverage bill in February.

New York Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, the chief sponsor of the bill in her chamber, said there is no question her state's Catholic leaders are ``distracted'' by the sex scandal.

``My colleagues have taken advantage of it, without a doubt,'' said Assemblyman Anthony Seminerio, a staunch Catholic. Enemies ``have hooked onto the Catholic Church, and the scavengers won't let go.''

The Republican leader of the Massachusetts House, Francis Marini, said the passage of the contraceptive coverage bill in his chamber shows that the sex scandal has diminished the church's influence in Boston.

``It's very difficult to make that moral argument when the front page of the paper is replete with what it's replete with,'' Marini said. ``Clearly, the church itself has lost some political clout and certainly Cardinal (Bernard) Law has.''

Law has been under fire to resign since January amid revelations that at least two priests accused of sexual misconduct involving children were allowed by the Boston Archdiocese to transfer between parishes.


Cardinal Edward Egan in the New York Archdiocese has been accused of sheltering priests accused of child sex abuse while he was bishop in the Bridgeport, Conn., Diocese.

Both Law and Egan have recently turned over records to authorities about priests suspected of sexual misconduct, though critics say they did so only grudgingly.

Between them, New York and Massachusetts have nearly 10 million Catholics. The New York and Boston archdioceses are, respectively, the third and fourth largest in the country. Even before the sex scandal broke, there was evidence of waning Catholic clout in both Albany and Boston. Legislatures in both states have approved bills over the church's strong objections creating buffer zones around abortion clinics which protesters are prohibited from entering. But the sex scandal threatens to cripple the ability of leaders to defend the Catholic tenets on a wide range of other issues, legislators and experts said. ``The very first thing I said to my staff when the scandal broke was 'What is it going to do to the moral authority of some bishops to speak about matters sexual and some pending legislation?''' said William Donohue, head of the 350,000-member Catholic League. ``Because people are going to be looking askance at them.''

The conservative Catholic speaker of the Massachusetts house, Thomas Finneran, said the controversy engulfing Law has sapped some of the cardinal's political strength in Boston. ``The moral authority of the church I think remains undimmed,'' Finneran said. ``The cardinal's authority, on the other hand, might be a little bit tarnished.'' There is no final agreement yet in either the Massachusetts or New York legislatures on the contraceptive coverage bills, though lawmakers seem to be intent on reaching a deal. Both legislatures also seem ready to pass measures requiring church leaders to report illegal sexual misconduct by the clergy. State Assemblyman Jack McEneny, a Catholic who is sponsoring the clergy-reporting bill in New York, said it would have been unthinkable for such a measure to be introduced until recently. ``The church wouldn't have even had to publicly condemn this bill 10 years ago,'' he said. ``People would have come out in the streets on the church's behalf to do so.''

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