Tale of Abuse in Los Angeles Archdiocese All Too Familiar for Catholic Church

BY Ray Suarez  February 7, 2013 at 2:05 PM EDT

Cardinal Roger Mahony, left, greets Archbishop Jose Gomez during a Mass in Los Angeles in May 2010. Gomez stripped Mahony of all public and administrative duties following the Archodiocese of Los Angeles’ release of files naming priests accused of molesting children. Photo by Reed Saxon/Reuters.

Promising further documents, and promising to reveal hidden information in previously released documents, the Catholic Church in America’s second largest metropolitan area is struggling to contain the continuing storm over decades of priestly abuse of young people.

As a condition of its 2007 legal settlement with past victims of sexual misconduct, the Los Angeles Archdiocese promised to release documents in church archives that detail the church’s attempts to handle steady reports of priestly misconduct. Letters between church members and administrators, priests and bishops, therapists and bishops, expose a multi-decade attempt to address the accusations without publicity, and without handling law enforcement.

People hold quilts at a press conference Feb. 1 outside of Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels for victims of sexual abuse by priests in the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
Photo by David McNew/REUTERS.

The story that emerges in the thousands of documents is not one that flatters the Catholic Church. Anguished families are urged to be quiet, clerics suspected of criminal activity are shipped off to other states with a full understanding of the statute of limitations on some of the suspected crimes. In the face of mounting evidence, a surplus of care, concern and sympathy is lavished on priests, while victims and families become potential problems that need to be handled. Again and again, the documents show, every last alternative is tried first, before priests are removed from their church responsibilities or returned to a lay state.

One of the prominent casualties of these latest revelations is the retired Archbishop of Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger Mahony. He has been officially sidelined by his successor, Archbishop Jose Gomez, while still retaining his full status as a cardinal and the sacramental privileges that come along with that. The cardinal is seen in private correspondence and in notes in the margins of documents in the archives guiding the strategy to keep the church’s reputation intact and to keep the police out of the priestly abuse problem. Since his censure by Gomez, Mahony has publicly complained about his treatment, and insisted he was trying to manage a problem the scope of which he did not understand.

On his own blog, the retired leader pushed back in a letter to Gomez: “Unfortunately, I cannot return now to the 1980s and reverse actions and decisions made then. But when I retired as the active archbishop, I handed over to you an archdiocese that was second to none in protecting children and youth.” This kind of open breach between a current and past archbishop is rare, even during the firestorm of priestly abuse charges, as senior members of the hierarchy routinely handle their conflicts internally and show a unified face to the outside world.

The documents show the Los Angeles Archdiocese story is not all that different from the scandals that rocked other Catholic institutions in recent years: transferring troubled priests, failing to notify law enforcement authorities even when faced with years of horrifying criminal activity, and placing a very high value on protecting the church from scandal. In this case, as in so many others, the attempt to shield the Catholic Church has resulted in much worse publicity than would have accompanied an earlier and fuller disclosure.