At pulpits across New Zealand, Catholic church apologizes for abuse

WELLINGTON, New Zealand - In a letter of apology read to Roman Catholic congregations across New Zealand on Sunday, bishops expressed "grief and shame" over sex abuse by priests and other church members.

The church last week revealed it had documented 38 cases of sexual abuse by church officers in the past 50 years, and offered victims an "unreserved" apology. It was the first admission of widespread sexual abuse in New Zealand's Catholic Church.

The cases included complaints against priests, monks and lay leaders for alleged abuse against adults, teen-agers and children.

In the southern city of Christchurch a group has called for an inquiry into sexual abuse by clergy in the St. John of God religious order, alleging up to 20 new cases of priests abusing boys.

"The deepening realization of the number of cases of sexual abuse perpetuated by priests ... is a cause of grief and shame to all of us," said the letter of apology, which was issued by the New Zealand Catholic Bishops' Conference.

"The betrayal of trust and the harm that has been done, especially to the young and the vulnerable fills us, your bishops, with a deep sense of sadness and betrayal," it said.

The President of the Bishops' Conference, Bishop Peter Cullinane, said the apology was to all church members on behalf of the clergy.

"Some of the cases (in the 60s and 70s) were not handled well, and that's the subject of the apology," he said. "In some cases the crimes are multiple crimes committed by one or two individuals ... and that brings shame on us all."

The letter deplored "past mistakes, especially those that were made by ourselves or by our predecessors in handling complaints of sexual abuse" and apologized to victims and their families.

About 15 percent of New Zealand's 4 million people are Catholics.