After preaching candor at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops last fall, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony is now practicing secrecy at home. Mahony is fighting the release of communications between himself and priests sought by prosecutors working on sexual abuse cases in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles. In civil court last week and in criminal proceedings the week before that, attorneys for Mahony argued that disclosure would violate the free expression of religion guaranteed by the 1st Amendment.
Courts have turned down similar arguments by bishops in Florida, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Indeed, the nationwide church sex abuse scandal came to light 14 months ago when a court ordered Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law to release documents. Law resigned in December.
Legal tactics aside, Mahony's evasiveness reveals a stunning disregard for the shock and betrayal experienced by many Catholics since the scandal broke. Spokesmen for the archdiocese point to the sanctity of the bond between bishop and priest -- akin to that of father and son, they say -- but what about the bond between bishop and congregation? What the Catholic hierarchy can't seem to grasp is that the only thing as disturbing as priests molesting children is the decades-long attempt by church leaders to keep it quiet.
Attorneys assert that their case against disclosure is about "the right of a bishop to speak openly and candidly with his priests ... without fear of being exposed to civil authorities." No, this is about a bishop's obligation to be open and candid with parishioners. It's about Mahony's pledge last year that the archdiocese had nothing to hide. Instead, Mahony now comes across as someone who indeed has something to hide -- and as someone trying to wait out the clock on a state law.
That law, effective Jan. 1, removed for one year the statute of limitations in sexual abuse cases in which an institution knowingly employed a molester. Previously, an alleged victim could file a lawsuit until the age of 26 or up to three years after first recognizing a link between the sexual abuse and physical or emotional damages. During 2003, alleged victims can file suits regardless of when the abuse occurred.
The archdiocese has said the communications it seeks to protect between Mahony and priests have no bearing on the pending sexual abuse cases. There's only one way to prove that: release the information. The public will trust the church to report future misdeeds only after it owns up to past ones.