BOSTON - As Roman Catholics gathered yesterday for the beginning of Holy Week, the most solemn observance of the Christian calendar, priests across the country addressed sexual abuse scandals that have shaken the church and tainted some of its top leaders.
"Not much can shock us in today's world, but in the past weeks we've seen things, heard things and read things that we never would have dreamed of," the Rev. Raymond Mann told parishioners at St. Anthony Shrine in Boston, the city where the scandal erupted earlier this year.
In many churches, Palm Sunday sermons asked Catholics to take solace from the Easter story of faith's victory over suffering and evil.
"There's always trouble in the world, there's always evil," said the Rev. Fergus Healey, also speaking at St. Anthony Shrine. "But we should face our current situation with a sense of hope, because evil's not supposed to have the last say."
This year, the six-week celebration of Lent, which retraces the story of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection, has been overshadowed by stories of the clergy's alleged sexual abuse of children and minors.
Revelations that the Archdiocese of Boston failed to remove priests accused of child molestation have been repeated in parishes across the country.
Calls have been growing for the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law, leader of the Boston archdiocese, and each day seems to bring new reports of children betrayed by their clergy.
Law, who has addressed the crisis numerous times and repeatedly rebuffed calls for his resignation, did not directly speak to the scandal during services yesterday.
Around the country, however, many priests used the themes of suffering, frayed trust and redemption contained in the traditional Palm Sunday readings, to address the church's crisis.
"For American Catholics, this Lent has surely been an emptying and humbling experience," Denver Archbishop Charles Caput wrote in a letter read in the archdiocese's nearly 150 parishes. "The cross this Holy Week will have a deeper meaning for all of us."
During his homily at St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York Cardinal Edward Egan called for a "purification of our church."
Egan, while serving as bishop of the Bridgeport, Conn., diocese, failed to notify authorities of alleged abuse by priests and allowed them to continue working within the church for years, according to recently released documents.
"It is a time of great suffering for the church," Egan said. "The cry that comes from all of our hearts is that we never want to even think that such a horror may be visited upon any of our young people, their parents or their loved ones ... "
In Hartford, Conn., Archbishop Daniel Cronin said a small number of priests throughout the United States had caused "immense harm and scandal."
"Let it be said frankly that this action is immoral and reprehensible and can never be excused," he told several hundred people gathered at St. Joseph's Cathedral. "These priests have hurt those they abused and caused scandal to the faithful of the church."
In Salt Lake City, the Rev. Joseph M. Mayo reminded parishioners that Jesus "stood against abuse of all kinds, especially the abuse of children who suffered as we live through this terrible crisis in our church."
The priests' words come three days after Pope John Paul II broke his silence on the scandal, saying it cast a "dark shadow of suspicion over all the other fine priests who perform their ministry with honesty."
The clergy molestation scandal exploded in Boston in January after newly released documents revealed that former priest John J. Geoghan had been moved from parish to parish following accusations of sexual abuse.
Since then, the archdiocese has provided prosecutors with the names of approximately 80 priests accused of sexually abusing children over the past 40 years. Dozens of priests - out of more than 47,000 nationwide - have been suspended or forced to resign.
Although many Catholics were chagrined to hear the sexual abuse allegations discussed during the holy services, they acknowledged that something needed to be said.
"It's important to let people know that the world is not coming to an end," said Michael Kaminski, 25, who attended a service in Jackson, Miss., where Bishop William Houck spoke of a need for prayer and solidarity.
"Easter is coming, a time when flowers bloom and everything is renewed," Kaminiski said. "We're going to get through this."