New York priests suspended in sex abuse scandal

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The sexual abuse scandal consuming the Catholic Church in the United States since the start of the year continued to widen yesterday when Cardinal Edward Egan of New York suspended six of his priests.

"The priests ... have been informed that they are not to present themselves as priests or exercise their priestly ministry publicly at least until the matter is further clarified or resolved," the church said in a weekend statement.

Dozens of priests have resigned or been sacked across America as the crisis has spread from coast to coast. It erupted in January after a court in Boston convicted a former pastor of abusing 130 children over decades, and it became clear that church leaders had covered up the case.

The New York archdiocese, and many others around the country, have responded by promising to practise zero tolerance with any priests accused of child abuse now or in the past, and to hand over their names to prosecutors. A list of New York area priests was given to prosecutors last week.

Authorities in Los Angeles confirmed they were investigating claims filed by a woman against the leader of the church in the city, Cardinal Roger Mahony. The woman, Flora Mae Hickman, 51, has said she was molested by the cardinal while she was a teenage school student in 1970.

She has admitted she takes medication for paranoid schizophrenia and cannot recall details of the abuse. Ms Hickman is also said to have a history of false accusations.

But no allegation is going unheeded by the church as it struggles to contain anger within its flock over the latest revelations. Debate is beginning to rumble over the needfor radical reform which might eventually include reconsideration of celibacy for priests.

Any departure from the teaching that priests should remain celibate would risk creating a huge rift with theVatican, but it has been raised by several senior figures in recent weeks, including Cardinal Mahony. He said: "The Eastern Catholic churches have always had a married priesthood and I guess it works out fine. So I think it should be discussed."

Abuse of minors by priests was denounced by the Mormon leadership at the weekend. "I regret to say there has been some very limited expression of this monstrous evil amongus," Gordon B Hinckley, the head of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said in Salt Lake City. "It is something that cannot be countenanced or tolerated."

There are fears that the numbers of priests exposed so far may only represent a fraction of those still to be named. And it may be a long time before the fury of the faithful in America is lulled.

"The hierarchy has never been challenged this way in the United States," said AW Snipe, a former Benedectine monk and author of books on sexual mores in the church. "It is an entirely new era."