MORE THAN 80 religious leaders -- representing a cross section of faiths and races in this city as well as its suburbs -- issued an extraordinary, important public statement last week on a subject of deep concern in every neighborhood. They spoke as one about "a crisis of integrity," about a troubling "confusion concerning issues of justice and ethics surrounding the trial of the mayor of the District of Columbia." Their concerns were directed at no single target; rather they said they "are deeply chagrined that questions of fundamental justice, ethics and morality have been overshadowed by irresponsible rhetoric, questionable journalism and rising polarization." More important, they made distinctions between the actions of the federal government in the prosecution of Mayor Barry and the duty of elected officials to uphold moral values.

It is one thing to "wonder why" -- at a time when many other serious urban issues are troubling the city -- the federal government has committed so much money and attention to one government official alleged to have used illegal drugs, the clerics wrote. But this should not offset public concern about immoral behavior: "The responsibility of elected officials and other individuals to hold family life, morality and integrity sacred is an equally important matter of public scrutiny."

The statement came in the wake of increasing concern among mainstream religious leaders about the stream of courthouse-lawn comments from certain ministers and about the duplicity of a public official saying one thing and doing the opposite: "Integrity is sacrificed, morality abandoned and family life defiled when persons preach against evils which they savor when camera lights and the public eye are absent."

The leaders stressed that they issued the statement "not to take sides" but as an "appeal to conscience," as a pledge on their part to unify in combating homelessness, poverty, drug abuse and "violence, injustice, division and racial and ethnic strife." Everyone, they said, acting as "a public jury, not the jury of the United States District Court, must decide whether we as the people of this metropolitan area will love or hate, be one or divided, hold integrity and family life sacred or consign such values to history's junk yard."

The statement's authors are right: however the current trial comes out, those are the questions that are going to have to be answered.