A trying time for the faithful as Catholic Church faces new abuse scandals

Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gomez leads a special Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in 2016. (Patrick T. Fallon/ For The Los Angeles Times)

Olivia Vela sat in the courtyard of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels on Sunday as she waited for the 10 a.m. Mass to begin. After a decades-long absence, she said she returned to the church a year and a half ago after she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

Vela said she is now in recovery and started attending services again because she is so grateful to be alive.

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But the 52-year-old nurse is still struggling to reconcile her beliefs with the sex abuse scandals that continue to plague the Catholic Church and the latest news that Pope Francis may have knowingly hid allegations about the now-disgraced American Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop in Washington.

“I’m trying to come back. I’m trying to come back,” Vela said, sounding weary.

On the day the clergy sex abuse scandal roiling the Catholic Church lapped at the innermost sanctum of the Vatican, Vela was just one of many Catholics across Southern California wrestling with their personal faith and disappointment with the failings of the institution.

In churches around the Southland, many parishioners said the latest allegation against Pope Francis — leveled by a longtime critic of the pope over his call for social reforms — was capping an already taxing month after revelations in a Pennsylvania grand jury report about decades of abuse and cover-up by predator priests and church officials.

Archbishop José Gomez, addressing a crowd of youngsters during a World Youth Day event at the cathedral Sunday, acknowledged that the scandals were causing many believers, especially the young, to consider leaving the church. He assured parishoners that he and other church leaders were committed to reform.

“There are young people who have been hurt by many in the church,” he said. “We are all committed to protecting our young people in all our churches, schools and ministries. But we need your help.”

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Cecilia González-Andrieu, a theology professor at Loyola Marymount University, said that in the last week, students had been stopping her on campus and messaging her on Facebook from around the country to ask for guidance.

She said she encouraged students to voice their opinions, engage with their parish priest and find their own roles in “loving our church and at the same time making it accountable.”

“It’s been a very painful period, playing out in our classrooms and parishes,” she said. “We are a family that has a broken heart right now, that is in pain.”

Melisa Cedillo was one of the students who turned to González-Andrieu. The day the Pennsylvania grand jury report was released, Cedillo, a recent graduate, said she furiously started typing a letter to send to the bishops to urge reforms and warn that the church was risking losing young Catholics.

“If you’re a young Catholic woman, you’re seeing the power and impact the ‘#MeToo’ movement is having in other realms, and you see your own church, and you don’t see that,” she said.

In his Sunday homily at Our Mother of Good Counsel in Los Feliz, Father Mark Menegatti spoke about priests’ disappointment with church leadership. His parishioners seemed to appreciate the frank expression, he said.

“They want to be good faithful Catholics and still speak up about this, and be upset about this,” he said. “They want to know that we as the clergy are with them.”

Menegatti said he spoke to church-goers about how as Catholics they should “not brush this off but struggle with it, however messy and challenging it may be.”

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Jose Alvarado, 53, was busy browsing the news on his cellphone in the courtyard of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels before Sunday’s 12:30 p.m. Mass. He said he had read earlier about the allegations against the pope.

Alvarado said he wished Pope Francis had spoken out and taken action sooner against McCarrick, who had a decades-long history of sexual relations with male seminarians and young priests and allegedly attacked an 11-year-old altar boy.

“If you don’t do anything about it, it’s going to keep happening,” he said.

Alvarado said he was also disgusted by the findings of the Pennsylvania grand jury report, which cited more than 1,000 cases of abuse by priests. But he also said he believed Pope Francis was doing his best to hold the church together and that he hadn’t lost his faith.

“These kinds of problems won’t make me turn my back on the church,” he said. “Because I’m Catholic.”

Vela, the nurse, said she felt less secure in her trust in the church she grew up in, attending Mass every Sunday. She said she felt the church’s problems stem from its long history of being a male-dominated organization that for centuries has covered up men’s indiscretions and was in need of “radical change.”

“We just don’t know how deep the problem lies,” she said.

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