March 26, 2002

NEW YORK (AP)--For Roman Catholic dissidents who want women and married men in the priesthood, the sex abuse scandal now shaking the church is a golden opportunity bearing a ``handle with care'' label. Though wary of seeming exploitive, liberal activists believe the crisis is creating ferment that makes their long-sought goals more plausible than ever - even if conservatives still predict they'll fail.

``The pedophilia scandal is not anything we want to be seen as capitalizing on,'' said Erin Hanley of the Women's Ordination Conference. ``But sometimes great joy and rebirth comes out of great suffering.''

The ordination conference, like several other liberal Catholic groups, kept a low profile during the scandal's early stages. On Monday, however, the sex-abuse problem figured prominently in protests marking World Day of Prayer for Women's Ordination.

``This is an opportunity to break the silence on a number of issues that people around the world have concerns with,'' Hanley said. ``A lot of Catholics who've been upset with the church, but were fearful of speaking up, are finally saying, 'This isn't right.'''

Leaders of the group CORPUS, which advocates a more inclusive priesthood, said their reaction to the scandal was cautious yet determined.

``Just as you wouldn't want to injure a wounded animal, there's a concern about using this as an opportunity for what people might consider cheap shots,'' said the group's vice president, Russ Ditzel. But CORPUS cited the scandal in a recent statement urging the church to end a ``conspiracy of silence'' and become more accountable.

``We don't want to build the need for reform on the scandal and the heartache itself,'' said Anthony Padovano, one of the group's founders. ``There should be married clergy and women clergy even if there's not a single problem with celibacy.'' Padovano, who left the active priesthood after getting married, contended that the pivotal issue in the scandal is really abuse of power by church leaders.

``You could eliminate pedophilia from all levels of the priesthood, and still not change anything that is essentially wrong with the structure itself,'' he said. ``We need a church that's much more open than it is now.''

Sister Maureen Fiedler, co-host of an interfaith radio talk show and a leading advocate of ordaining women, said the scandal reinforced her doubts about the church's insistence on all-male leadership.

``Statistically speaking, women are almost never pedophiles or sexual abusers, so if you wanted a priesthood that was not as likely to have sexual abuse, opening it to women clearly would do that,'' she said. ``But the primary reason to ordain women isn't to create a non-abuse culture--it's to have justice for women.''

William Donohue, who as president of the conservative Catholic League often defends traditional church doctrine, said the liberal groups represented only a fringe of American Catholics and would fail in their quest for sweeping change.

``They'll try to seize the moment,'' he said. ``But when the next pope comes in, and they find he's not going to make the church into the template for their demands, they'll cut and run.''

Among senior church leaders at the Vatican and in the United States, there have been no hints that the scandal will lead to a more inclusive priesthood. ``The issue of pedophilia is a tragedy,'' said Susan Gibbs, spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Washington. ``It would be extremely unfortunate to use that tragedy to further an unrelated agenda.''

But the Rev. Russell Ruffino suspects the abuse scandal may sow the seeds for change--even if it doesn't come in his lifetime. Ruffino was once a Catholic priest but quit in 1969, dismayed by the Vatican's condemnation of birth control. He is now a priest at an Episcopal church in Narragansett, R.I., with a wife and two grown children.

``When people come to the Roman church, traditionally they feel protected by belonging to a church that's infallible,'' he said. ``Now people look around and say, 'There are cracks in the walls, in the foundation.'''

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