March 12, WASHINGTON (USA TODAY)-- The nation's largest Catholic church, a stone shrine on a hilltop north of the Capitol, draws committed Roman Catholics from the Washington region and the world to worship.

Last Sunday, as hundreds flowed up the steps in the noon sun, pulled open the immense wooden doors against a strong cold wind and entered for Mass, the latest news of scandals in U.S. Catholic church still rang in their ears.

Yet a brief, unscientific survey of visitors at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception finds their faith in God and the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church unshaken, even as they're shocked by reports of:

* Dozens of priests named in cases of sexual misconduct. ''I felt the pain all over again when I saw on television that the priest who baptized my baby brother before he died (at 5 weeks old) did shameful things,'' said David Allen, 21, of Hyattsville, Md.

* Millions of dollars paid in the past 30 years in hushed-up settlements with victims from Boston to Los Angeles. ''We've got to have moral and financial accountability. They're hiding the baloney and they can't do it anymore,'' said Roger Reid, 60, of Baltimore, director of a 100-year-old international Catholic men's service club.

* The leading cardinal in America faces public demands to resign for failure to protect young victims, remove offending priests and assure believers the leadership could be trusted. Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law has acknowledged keeping sex-offender priests on parish duty for decades. ''What was he thinking? Were they hanging on to questionable men because of the shortage of priests? The bishops need to focus less on damage control and more on coming clean with parishioners,'' said Becky Kroeger, 28, of Arlington, Va.

'A beautiful belief'

'A beautiful belief'

Yet all who spoke Sunday agreed with Brian Freeman, 34, of D'Iberville, Miss:

''We will give to our churches and go to our churches and support the Church as she solves these problems. This will never lessen our faith,'' he pledged.

They are like Karla Garcia, 21, a student at the University of Texas, Austin, weary of taunts about a handful of wayward priests as if they despoiled her whole religion. Said Garcia, head high: ''We have a beautiful church, a beautiful belief.''

Maria Leib, 31, of Loretto, Pa., pains for those wounded by the abuse scandal yet insists on a longer view. ''The Catholic Church has weathered all sorts of storms across the centuries and it will continue to weather these for centuries to come. It is made up of human beings and we are all sinful creatures.''

Austin Hunt, a priest from Liverpool, England, insists that corruption can be found in every history, land and faith, and that such clergy are still ''incredibly few, incredibly small in proportion to the whole.''

Catholics are taught, says Allen ''even if the priest is not pure, the sacrament is always pure.''

So he has brought his friend Maria Gutierriz to ''the most beautiful church I know'' for prayers. Gutierriz, equally dismayed by the unholy news, like Allen says, ''I come to church to pray to the Lord and I don't blame the Lord for this.''

These Sunday churchgoers don't claim to speak for all of America's 60 million Catholics, certainly not for those lapsed believers or disaffected ex-Catholics who add this scandal to a list of reasons they left the church long ago.

Dennis Taylor of Billings, Mont., no longer goes to the Catholic church. But Taylor, 56, a member of USA TODAY's panel of baby boomers, expressed a view that may be held by other former churchgoers.

He's ''embarrassed for the church, for the hypocrisy and the cover-up'' by ''one of the largest, most enduring and successful organizations, with a big bureaucracy, in the history of the world. You would think they would have found a way to protect vulnerable parishioners from this type of behavior from those who are trusted the most,'' said Taylor in a phone interview.

Sunday at the Basilica there was plenty of blame to go around for man, if not for God.

''I get a little grit in my eye when I see people I know should not be taking communion going up to the altar, even more if I think there are priests who shouldn't be giving it,'' says Linda Davis, 52. She's stubbornly Catholic, although the church has exiled her from the sacraments for divorcing and remarrying outside the faith.

Davis is a city councilwoman in D'Iberville, part of a group including Freeman attending meetings in the city. If church laity could vote on solutions for the church, she'd split with traditionalist Freeman and vote for ordaining women. ''The time has come for some changes,'' she says.

Not hardly, say Steve Balshi and his friend John Falcicchio, both 22 and graduates of Catholic University, which shares the hillside with the Basilica. Both men take their faith with serious deliberation and speak with respect of friends who chose the seminary. ''If Christ had wanted women to be priests, he would have chosen them for disciples,'' Balshi says.

Neither do these men join the outcry for leaders to resign.

Balshi asks rhetorically, ''Who would you replace them with?''

Falcicchio argues that today's church leaders, now accused of covering up for sinners, struggled to make the right decisions and took the best counsel they were given at the time. The scandals and the new demands for tighter screening and more open discipline won't drive worthy men from the priestly vocation. ''People who are meant to be priests will still be priests.''

Holiness and sacrifice

Most people interviewed, like these young men, would not ordain women or welcome married priests.

''Remember, we pray for priests to be strong in their vocations. To live a life devoted to holiness requires a great deal of sacrifice. Marriage is one of those sacrifices,'' says Margot Atilano, 46, of Falls Church, Va.

Still, most say any clergyman must go, quickly and publicly, if there is a credible accusation of sexual misconduct.

Reid knew Bishop J. Keith Symons, who resigned from the Palm Beach, Fla., diocese in 1998 after admitting sexual misconduct. His replacement, Bishop Anthony J. O'Connell, stepped down Friday for the same reasons.

''I was more than shocked when Symons admitted his problems. I was personally offended. . . . And now we learn that millions and millions of dollars that we know about -- and how many millions, maybe billions, that we don't know about yet? -- have gone to settlements in cases like this.''

Reid rattled off a list of pointed questions: ''Who was keeping track of all this? Where is this money coming from? We know there are overhead and operational costs for running a diocese, but it's not as though the dioceses have open budgets where we can see line items for paying off lawsuits for sexual abuse.''

Yet the outraged Reid sees good news in the media exposure of the issue because ''everyone knows now that this is never going to be hushed up again, that they can't bury these mistakes anymore. Now it's time for the laity to step up and demand that the princes of the church deal with this issue clearly and properly and be accountable to us.''

Nelia Sering, 45, of Falls Church, says, ''People can't blame the Catholic religion for a few priests who have done wrong. But church leaders can't hide behind their faith.''

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