Cardinal Roger Mahony has been relieved of his public duties by Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez. Auxiliary Bishop Thomas J. Curry has quit his job as regional bishop in Santa Barbara. And the website of the Catholic archdiocese of L.A. is displaying tens of thousands of pages of formerly secret files detailing accusations of child molestation against 122 priests -- all the church’s dirty laundry that Mahony and Curry did their best to hide for many years.
For a decade now, the sex abuse scandal has rocked the Roman Catholic Church in city after city. The scandal in Los Angeles led to a settlement between the church and 500 abuse victims in 2007, but the archdiocese had resisted opening personnel files. Now, though, the files are wide open and the stark evidence of a cover-up has brought to disgrace one of the most powerful and admired men in the church, Cardinal Mahony. The good works of a lifetime are tainted by the fact that he saw evil, had the authority to stop it and, instead, tried to keep it in the darkness by giving offending priests out-of-state assignments and barring them from talking to therapists who might blow the whistle on their misdeeds.
It goes without saying that the Catholic hierarchy from Rome on down has long been engaged in a cynical effort to protect the institution of the church by hiding pedophile priests. Still, there is also an element of Christian idealism at work here. At the heart of the faith is the principle that any sinner, no matter how wicked, can be redeemed by God’s forgiveness. That goes for priests, too. In the context of church teaching, there is logic in allowing clergy to repent and ask forgiveness, rather than turning them over to the police. But it is a naïve logic that depends on a miracle cure for a disorder that even years of therapy cannot always remedy.
This forgiveness principle was misused in the most horrible ways by priests who were eager to get past repentance and on to the next victim. Just one example: The newly released files tell the sick tale of one priest who placed his hand on the forehead of the boy he had just violated and absolved him of sin. According to the boy, this happened 15 times.
Archbishop Gomez characterized the files as "brutal and painful reading."
"The behavior described in these files is terribly sad and evil," Gomez said in a letter to L.A.’s Catholics. "There is no excuse, no explaining away what happened to these children. The priests involved had the duty to be their spiritual fathers and they failed."
Of course, the files describe things that happened in the 1980s and the church insists steps have been taken to prevent such things from happening today. We all pray that is true. But, as they say in politics, the cover-up is more damaging than the crime, at least to the powerful men who try to keep terrible secrets. Cardinal Mahony is the latest to learn this lesson.
From the cathedrals of America to St. Peter’s in Rome, other powerful men need to get the message as well. So far, however, too many seem very slow to learn. It will be hard to believe the church has fully reformed until the current generation of Catholic bishops and cardinals is gone from power and new men (and women?) rise to take their place with no blemish of scandal on their robes.