Priests and ethicists are joining politicians in condemning President Clinton's personal peccadilloes and opening a new debate over what they contend is a deterioration of moral values in America.

Longtime ethics crusader William Bennett, former secretary of education in the Reagan administration, said he welcomes a debate over American moral issues he expects will erupt as the public reads details of the president's transgressions."We are in a presidential crisis, a leadership crisis, and a moral crisis. But we are not in a constitutional crisis," Bennett said. "I think we do have the stomach for this."

Bennett said he's surprised not to hear more outrage from American leaders about the president's behavior. "We all should be pretty clear on this one," he said.

Some religious leaders are speaking out, contending the political problems derailing Clinton's presidency carry a moral lesson for the nation.

"The real question is not only President Clinton, but what the American public condones," said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents 800 synagogues nationwide.

Epstein said the message of Clinton's problems has special meaning for Jews, who this month celebrate Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, and recall the lessons of King David's seduction of Bathsheba.

"There is no such thing as a private matter," Epstein said, contending public sensitivities to moral questions have been eroded. "If what he was doing is what society is used to, then what have we become?"

Epstein rejected Clinton's claim that even presidents have a right to private lives, and said the chief occupant of the White House is supposed to be America's moral leader, a model for the country, and someone whom children should aspire to emulate. "The American public is too willing to accept mediocrity," said Epstein.

James McHugh, Roman Catholic bishop of Camden, N.J., was so upset the public might accept Clinton's argument that he has a right to a private life that he wrote an article for the diocese newspaper condemning the president.

"My purpose is not to judge the president, much less punish him. My deeper and more fearsome concern is the prevailing public reaction and what that says of the moral fiber of the country," the bishop said.

"Sex is never private. It always has social implications. That is why all societies try to control it by laws, customs, social restrictions," he said. "His dilemma should be a lesson to the nation that our national mores and attitudes need refashioning."

Clinton's pastor, Philip Wogaman of the Foundry Methodist Church in Washington, urged his religious compatriots to be more understanding and put Clinton's concession of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky in the context of Clinton's successful presidency.

"How do we see this in balance with other aspects of his life? Does it define him? I know him well enough to know he is a good man, and a gifted man." Wogaman said.

Wogaman, who taught ethics for 26 years before taking over the Washington church, said Clinton's critics should not be so judgmental. "I'm a Christian, and believer in Jesus that the heart of morality is love. To resolve this in an unloving way would not be moral."

Wogaman said he welcomes a public debate over the status of American morality. "I'm not one of those who think our society is going downhill. I think it's been getting better rather than worse," he said, noting modern society is less racist and sexist than when he grew up.

But longtime Clinton critic Jerry Falwell of the Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., said he believes the president is responsible for lowering moral standards in the United States.

"My view as a theologian is that the leadership of a nation reflects the moral condition of the nation itself, and Bill Clinton is a reflection of the moral climate of the nation," he said.

Falwell said that Clinton's role of president gives him no privacy for any actions he conducts in the Oval Office, or the working space of the White House. "What is done in the Oval Office, in a publicly owned building - that is the business of the people who own that building," he said.

Clinton and other public figures agree to sacrifice their privacy when they take a public role. "As a preacher, I have a public role, responsible to the 22,000 members of my congregation, just as president, he is responsible to 270 million members in his congregation."

Falwell said he doesn't expect perfection from politicians, but does expect presidents to respect the values of the office they hold.

At a speech in Orlando, Fla., on Wednesday, Clinton apologized for his behavior, saying to the audience, "I let you down I let my family down. I let this country down. But I'm trying to make it right. I'm determined to never let anything like that happen again. I'm determined to redeem the trust of people."

Wednesday night, in an appearance in Coral Gables, Fla., Clinton again referred to his "rather painful journey." He added: "I hope you and others will forgive me for the mistakes I have made."

He has since continued making overt apologies to members of his Cabinet and the American people.