Charles McMahon studies metals, not minds, so forgive the academic his unscientific presumptions about the psychology of piety.

McMahon, a 77-year-old professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania, figured religious leaders would relish the opportunity to speak freely and anonymously about the sex-abuse scandal tainting the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. If asked, surely priests would say they support legislation to abolish the statute of limitations in child sex-abuse cases and allow victims to file civil lawsuits - what compassionate person would not?

Instead, the respondents in a Lenten survey of 881 area priests could best be categorized as uninterested or disgusted.

The overwhelming majority of priests (716, or 81 percent) didn't return the blank, self-addressed, stamped postcards to the local chapter of the Catholic reform group Voice of the Faithful (VOTF), to which McMahon belongs.

Of the 165 who responded, 114 (69 percent) voted "No." An additional 13 (8 percent) expressed conflicted views on whether to put the needs of victims above church politics and finances.

Only 38 priests (23 percent) supported pro-victim laws at any cost.

"I was shocked . . . amazed," the materials-science scholar told me as we sat at his dining-room table in Lafayette Hill last week, reviewing the survey results.

Had it been one of the metallurgist's lab experiments, "I guess you could say this blew up in my face."

Hot under the collars

The survey had a modest goal: to gauge priests' views on two measures in the Pennsylvania legislature, House Bill 832 and H.B. 878, aimed at easing the past, present, and future pain of those who were sexually abused as children.

If anything, the resounding "No" votes showed priests contending with their own anger and agony.

"NO!!!" screamed one priest calling VOTF a "terrorist organization" that "lost its moral compass."

"Abolishing the statute of limitations and opening a two-year window for lawsuits has nothing to do with healing and reconciliation . . . and everything to do with money."

The proposed laws, wrote a self-described "priest of integrity," "would only result in a transfer of wealth from the church to lawyers; the victims would be victimized again. The forced closure of nursing homes, soup kitchens, schools, and parishes to pay settlement claims would benefit no one."

Some priests said they feared the new measures would hasten false accusations and destroy reputations. These men of God sounded more concerned for their colleagues than for children.

"Repentance and forgiveness are needed," one wrote, "not self-righteousness and revenge . . . in the name of justice and closure!"

Forty-three postcards came back with "No" in bold, all caps, underlined, or with exclamation marks. One critic dubbed the effort "pathetic." Barked another: "I PRAY FOR YOUR CONVERSION BACK TO PIETY."

Singled out

A handful of priests signed their replies.

I reached out to all of them, but only one returned my call.

On his postcard, the Rev. Richard Connors of Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Port Richmond chastised VOTF's "agenda," saying the group seeks "the destruction of the church." When we talked, Connors said he believed the proposed laws would unfairly target his profession.

"They won't assist anyone except those abused by clergy or members of another institution," Connors said of the proposed laws. "I know someone abused by a babysitter. How does this help them? It would be fruitless to sue people without resources."

McMahon, a proud if conflicted "cradle Catholic," said he felt for priests who were afraid to disobey bishops and so isolated they couldn't see the scandal the way lay people did.

"This is a correctable problem," he said. But the fix probably will hit the church disproportionately.

"The only reason this issue is associated mostly with the Catholic clergy is the cover-up," McMahon concluded. "The only way to get all of the facts out in the open is through discovery. And the only way to do that is in the courts."

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