By Jonathan Allen
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A Roman Catholic priest in New York expressed sympathy this week for some clergy who sexually abuse children, saying that it is often the "youngster" who is the seducer, then later apologized for his remarks.
Comments by the Rev. Benedict Groeschel, 79, co-founder of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal in Westchester County outside New York City, in which he expressed sympathy for convicted child rapist Jerry Sandusky, drew strong criticism from the Archdiocese of New York and the support group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
"Suppose you have a man having a nervous breakdown, and a youngster comes after him. A lot of the cases, the youngster — 14, 16, 18 — is the seducer," Groeschel said when asked by an interviewer from the National Catholic Register, the nation's oldest Catholic newspaper, about his work with priests who abuse children.
Groeschel, who has published numerous books and hosted shows on the Eternal Word Television Network, suggested that children might seduce priests because they lacked a father figure, adding, "They won't be planning to get into heavy-duty sex, but almost romantic, embracing, kissing, perhaps sleeping, but not having intercourse or anything like that."
On Thursday evening, Groeschel apologized, claiming his mind and ways of expressing himself "are not as clear as they used to be."
"I apologize for my comments. I did not intend to blame the victim. A priest (or anyone else) who abuses a minor is always wrong and is always responsible," he said in a statement. "I deeply regret any harm I have caused to anyone."
The Catholic Church has been rocked in recent decades by accusations that it tried to cover up the sexual abuse of children by priests and has paid out billions in settlements to abuse victims, bankrupting several U.S. dioceses.
Similar scandals have shaken the lucrative world of college sports, most notably the conviction of Sandusky, a former Penn State assistant football coach, for sexually abusing 10 boys over 15 years, most of them in the campus football showers.
Groeschel referred to Sandusky as "this poor guy." Pondering how Sandusky's attacks could have gone on for so long, Groeschel added, "Well, you know, until recent years, people did not register in their minds that it was a crime."
The interview was published on Monday but was removed from the National Catholic Register's website by Thursday. It was replaced with a note from Jeanette De Melo, the Register's editor in chief, apologizing for what she called an "editorial mistake," saying the publication should have attempted to clarify or challenge his comments.
"Child sexual abuse is never excusable," she wrote.
The Archdiocese of New York said Groeschel's comments were "simply wrong" and could not go unchallenged, although it does not have direct authority over Groeschel, who retired from teaching in the archdiocese's seminary last year.
'SAID SOMETHING LIKE GRANDPA WOULD SAY'
Colleagues of Groeschel suggested on Thursday that he was recovering from a fall and was mentally frail.
The Rev. Glenn Sudano, a spokesman for the Franciscan Friars, likened him to an elderly relative.
"He said something like grandpa would say and it's like 'Grandpa, why would you say that?'" Sudano told Reuters in a telephone interview.
"Obviously we don't agree with what he said. Obviously it's terribly disappointing that people are hurt or upset," Sudano said. "We feel very bad about it."
Sudano said he did not know if Groeschel would face any consequences for his remarks.
Barbara Blaine, president of Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, called the remarks "callous."
"A teenager does not have the power to seduce anyone. The adult is in the position of power and authority," Blaine said. "He should be removed from speaking as a Catholic leader."
Archdiocese spokesman Joseph Zwilling said, "The harm that was done by these remarks was compounded by the assertion that the victim of abuse is responsible for the abuse, or somehow caused the abuse to occur.
"This is not only terribly wrong," he said in a statement, "it is also extremely painful for victims."
(Editing by Peter Cooney and Stacey Joyce)