updated 7/13/2005 8:26:18 PM ET 2005-07-14T00:26:18

In a rare personal attack on the Senate floor, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy accused Sen. Rick Santorum on Wednesday of being self-righteous and insensitive for a column he wrote three years ago linking Boston’s liberalism to the sex abuse scandal in its Catholic diocese.

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Santorum, R-Pa., wrote in the July 2002 column for Catholic Online that promoting alternative lifestyles feeds such aberrant behavior as priests molesting children.

“Priests, like all of us, are affected by culture,” Santorum wrote. “When the culture is sick, every element in it becomes infected. While it is no excuse for this scandal, it is no surprise that Boston, a seat of academic, political and cultural liberalism in America, lies at the center of the storm.”

In a speech, Kennedy, D-Mass., called for Santorum to retract his remarks and apologize to the people of Boston and Massachusetts and the nation.

“The people of Boston are to blame for the clergy sexual abuse? That is an irresponsible, insensitive and inexcusable thing to say,” said Kennedy.

Robert Traynham, a spokesman for Santorum, said his boss recognizes that the church abuse scandal was not just in Boston, but all over the country.

Throughout the United States, sexual abuse by priests has cost the Catholic Church more than $1 billion. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia has said that its records show 44 priests have been “credibly” accused of molesting minors since the 1950s.

Traynham said Santorum “was speaking to a broader cultural argument about the need for everyone to take these issues very, very seriously.”

Romney defends
Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican who — like Santorum — has been mentioned as a possible presidential candidate in 2008, called the remarks unfortunate but did not ask for an apology, said spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom.

“Senator Santorum is a fine person, and we’re all entitled to make a mistake once in a while,” Fehrnstrom said.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., commented, “As a prosecutor in Massachusetts, I saw some of the worst criminals who had abused children, and not once did I hear them hide behind Senator Santorum’s bizarre claim that the state was responsible for their acts.”

The scandal began in Boston in early 2002 when internal church files released under court order revealed abusive priests were transferred from parish to parish rather than removed from the ministry. Cardinal Bernard Law resigned as archbishop later that year amid criticism over his handling of the crisis.

A 2003 investigation by Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas Reilly found that at least 1,000 children in the state were abused by more than 235 priests and church workers between 1940 and 2000. The archdiocese has paid out more than $120 million to settle abuse claims since 1950.

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