by Phil Lawler
Jul. 17, 2007 (CWNews.com) – Five years ago Cardinal Roger Mahony was reportedly encouraging Vatican officials to ask for the resignation of Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law. Using the same logical arguments that the American prelate presented in 2002, the Vatican should now ask Cardinal Mahony himself to step down.
The sensational cost of the sex-abuse scandal for the Los Angeles archdiocese far exceeds the devastation in Boston. The $660-million legal settlement announced on July 16 is nearly five times the total of the financial damages in Boston. Combining that settlement with previous agreements, lawyers’ fees, and other associated costs, the overall price to be paid by the faithful Catholics of Los Angeles will approach $1 billion.
Yet the monetary costs, grave as they are, still do not reflect the most serious damage to the Catholic faith. Only rarely do I agree with an editorial in the Boston Globe, particularly when the topic is the Catholic faith. But today’s Globe editorial is on target:
“In the eyes of victims, the scandal will never be fully resolved as long as bishops who put the interests of their fellow priests over the protection of children remain in positions of leadership.”
One could—and should—go further. This ugly chapter in Catholic history cannot be closed until the Church rebukes those prelates who put their own interests ahead of the needs of the Catholic faithful and the Catholic faith. Cardinal Mahony is the most conspicuous example.
In his public statement announcing the $660 million legal settlement, the cardinal acknowledged that “these settlements will have very serious and painful consequences for the archdiocese.” He continued: “This is not the fault, nor responsibility of the victims.” True enough. But whose fault is it? Cardinal Mahony did not address that question; instead he went on to discuss the cutbacks that would be required in the archdiocesan budget.
The blame lies, of course, primarily on the priests who molested young people. (And it is of more than passing interest to note that several of the accused molesters were close associates of the cardinal.) But the blame also lies on the bishops who protected those predators and allowed them to continue associating freely with young people long after their vices were known.
By 2002, when the focus of attention was on Boston and Cardinal Law was under public scrutiny, this pattern of episcopal cover-ups had been fully exposed. Yet in Los Angeles, Cardinal Mahony had apparently learned nothing from his colleague’s humiliation. In a shocking series of email exchanges during Holy Week (later leaked to the media) the cardinal and his top aides revealed themselves to be motivated by the desire to avoid disclosure rather than to protect children, to manage public perceptions rather than to defend the integrity of the Church.
From that time to the present, Cardinal Mahony and his legal team have followed the same self-serving strategy, fighting doggedly to prevent the disclosure of embarrassing information. They have argued that the release of diocesan files would endanger the welfare of abuse victims, the California state constitution, the seal of confession, and property rights of accused priests, and even the status of illegal immigrants. The courts have quite rightly rejected all those arguments, and now at last, after years of expensive and fruitless legal maneuvering, the files will be opened.
How much damage has been done to the credibility of the Catholic hierarchy through that needlessly prolonged legal process? Even the casual observer realized that this jumble of implausible and often contradictory legal arguments could be explained not by any defense of principle, but by a desperate desire to avoid more damaging disclosures and to keep Cardinal Mahony off the witness stand.
With a legal settlement reached on the eve of the first court date, the cardinal has been spared from testifying at a public trial. But the Church has paid an enormous price for the legal delays, and the cardinal’s own credibility is in shreds.
Does anyone doubt that when the chancery files are finally opened, their contents will be even more damaging to Cardinal Mahony? A pattern has been clearly established in the Los Angeles archdiocese: information favorable to the cardinal is immediately aired; information that damages his public standing is hidden from view—for as long as chancery officials can maintain the shroud of secrecy. And the faithful are let to wonder whether the archdiocese will ever reveal the entire truth.
Healing within the Church will be impossible until the faithful can put full confidence in their leaders, and Cardinal Mahony’s conduct over the past five years has made it difficult if not impossible for the laity to give him the trust. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles needs a change.
Phil Lawler is the editor of Catholic World News