Etching abuse in church’s memory

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LaGanga and Helfand are Times staff writers.

Oakland’s new Cathedral of Christ the Light stretches skyward, sheathed in gleaming glass that reveals a delicate skeleton of wood and steel.

Terrie Light has spent more than three years thinking about the elegant structure. She has attended more meetings than she can count about the $190-million cathedral complex while helping to design its most famous garden.

But the 57-year-old has no plans to be a regular visitor to the shadowy corner, with its privet hedges, curved wooden benches and somber dedication: “To those innocents sexually abused by members of the clergy. We remember, and we affirm: Never again.”


Light was molested by a priest in the Diocese of Oakland half a century ago. Although being around churches stirs painful memories, she hopes the tribute “might provide solace” to survivors and their family members.

But as she discovered, “what it actually ended up doing was make a lot of people mad.”

The survivors had originally envisioned a far different tribute, a big, splashy garden filled with flowers and fountains. What they got after much heated debate was small, simple, downright austere.

Then there were fights over the inscription, Light said, such as the diocese’s resistance to the engraved words “clergy abuse.” The very existence of such a monument leaves a lot of people “unsettled.”

The scandal “is not a thing that’s fixed,” Light said. “There are so many Catholics who don’t want to believe this happened or the extent of it. . . . Other people need to be reminded. Not me.”

The “healing garden” was dedicated this fall, the latest in a small sprinkling of tributes to victims of clergy sexual abuse nationwide, controversial monuments that raise more questions than they can possibly answer.

What is the proper way to remember the thousands of victims? What do the tributes accomplish? Are they enough? Why aren’t there more?


Cases of clergy sexual abuse have been reported in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. More than 5,000 priests in the U.S. have been accused. The Catholic Church in the U.S. has paid out more than $2 billion in legal settlements. Six dioceses have filed for bankruptcy.

But there are believed to be fewer than half a dozen monuments across the country, according to survivor advocates.

“A lot of churches and groups want to be attentive to the needs of victims. They don’t want to forget and don’t want bad things to happen again,” said Thomas Plante, a psychologist who has written about clergy sexual abuse. “But some rank-and-file Catholics want to move on,” said Plante, a professor at Santa Clara University. “You hear a bit of both. It’s tough. I don’t know how you resolve some of those conflicts.”

The dearth of monuments also reflects a more general Catholic architectural aesthetic that favors altars and stained glass ahead of tributes.

“If you look in Catholic churches, you don’t tend to see a lot of memorials,” said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest and senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.

The ultimate aim, Reese and other theologians say, should be to create “living memorials” -- dialogues that can repair frayed relationships better than a static monument.


“It reminds us that we have to do better,” Reese said. “That’s what church is all about. You don’t cover these things up. You face them. You expose them. And try and work toward some kind of healing.”

The clergy sex abuse scandal erupted in Boston in 2002. When Pope Benedict XVI met with several victims during his trip to the United States in April, the pope said he was “deeply ashamed” of what happened. Litigation is ongoing. And that creates a tension of its own.

“The challenge is, how do you deal with the unsettled in permanent form?” said Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum. “Giving it form while it’s fluid is a very interesting task. Holocaust memorials often took decades.”

The first victim tribute to appear -- and later disappear -- was in a small chapel in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles.

Adorned with candles, a bulletin board for photographs and a book to inscribe the names of victims, the temporary commemoration was “designated” by Cardinal Roger Mahony on May 25, 2003, four years before the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles agreed to a $660-million settlement with 508 victims.

Mahony made the announcement about the chapel at Sunday Mass. He blessed the space and knelt silently as television cameras recorded the scene. Victims were enraged that they weren’t invited; one called Mahony’s gesture “a public relations stunt.”


A week after the opening, victims attempted to install a life-size wooden cross decorated with snapshots of boys and girls who had been sexually abused by priests. Cathedral security initially blocked the group from entering, then stepped aside.

The display and the wooden cross were quietly dismantled this year and replaced by a memorial to victims of the Darfur genocide. The archdiocese kept the cross. So far, abuse victims haven’t decided whether they want it returned.

But the saga has embittered the victims and their advocates, who have fought in court to force Mahony to release confidential personnel records of priests accused of sexual misconduct.

“It’s wiped out our trust,” said Udo Strutynski, leader of the Los Angeles chapter of SNAP, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.

Tod Tamberg, an archdiocese spokesman, said the installation was never meant to be permanent. Nine chapels on the cathedral’s ground floor rotate themes regularly, he said.

Tamberg said the archdiocese has taken other steps to heal the wounds of clergy sexual abuse, including prevention training for priests, teachers and other adults who come into contact with children.


“That chapel was an initial pastoral response not only to victims of clergy abuse but all victims of abuse,” Tamberg said. “Five years later, we have programs in place that . . . are a promise and living memorial by the church that [abuse] is not going to happen again.”

The first permanent tribute to abuse victims was dedicated April 25, 2004, in Mendham, N.J., less than 50 yards from the rectory of St. Joseph Church, where James T. Hanley molested more than a dozen young men when he was a priest.

The 400-pound basalt sculpture of a millstone carries an inscription from the Gospel of Matthew, an angry warning from Jesus that whoever “causes one of these little ones who trust in me to lose faith, it would be better for that person to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone tied around the neck.”

Bill Crane, now a 42-year-old landscaper, was abused by Hanley. So was his childhood friend Jim Kelly, who committed suicide by jumping in front of a train in 2003. It was Kelly’s death that spurred Crane to push for and design the memorial, which was largely paid for through donations.

“For survivors, it sends a message of healing, that their pain and what they endured won’t be forgotten,” he said. “It sends a sober message to priests . . . that you don’t mess with God’s children.”

Crane wants a tribute in every diocese in America, although he isn’t holding his breath. There was “tremendous opposition” to the Mendham memorial, he said, and he has the hate mail to prove it.


One e-mail started off by charging that the millstone’s inscription twists Scripture, and closed with “Your brother in Jesus Christ.”

And in the middle of those relatively mild lines?

“There’s still time to make a good confession, do penance, and publicly apologize to Catholics the world over for the existence of SNAP, I am embarrassed that you people even think that you are good catholics! As a Roman Catholic I urge you all to rethink what evil you do . . . “

The fight “for this memorial and justice and truth, it took years off our lives,” said Crane, who now lives in Sandy, Ore., where his efforts to create a tribute have been rebuffed. “There remains to this day a lot of angry Catholics.”

The Diocese of Davenport in Iowa paid for, designed and erected a similar millstone monument at its headquarters in 2005. The monument -- along with child protection training and other reforms -- constituted the “nonmonetary” part of a $9-million settlement with 37 clergy sexual abuse survivors.

Two years later, a lay group calling itself Catholics for Spiritual Healing raised $4,000 to erect a granite marker at Saints Philip and James Catholic Church in Grand Mound, the final posting of one of Iowa’s most notorious abusers.

In Oakland, survivors designing the healing garden thought a millstone marker would send the wrong message.


“It focused on the perpetrators, not the victims,” Light said. “If we thought about something healing for survivors, we wanted something more forward-looking.”

They also wanted something permanent, irrefutable and on church grounds, she said, because the abuse “is real to Catholics if [the monument] is at the cathedral.”

That’s a complicated proposition. Many survivors can barely bring themselves near a church. So the simple garden, paid for by the diocese, is in back of the cathedral and can be reached via a staircase out of sight of all religious symbols.

One of the garden’s curved benches is positioned so that visitors can sit with their backs to the cathedral, facing instead a basalt sculpture of riven rock. To Light, the piece represents the survivors’ journey, “broken parts of a whole attempting to come together.”

The Rev. Paul D. Minnihan, provost at the Cathedral of Christ the Light, said the sanctuary was being planned as the abuse scandal played out, and local survivors clamored for the memorial.

“Christ came to conquer sin,” Minnihan said. “The healing garden represents Christ’s triumph. . . . To have it here is the embodiment of the mission.”


The garden was dedicated Oct. 11 before 40 or so survivors, friends and family members, nuns, priests and bishops. The ceremony was equal parts pain and hope, anger and ambivalence.

“There are people in the survivor community who say it’s silly and not enough,” Light said. “I agree. It’s not enough. But I’m taking anything I can get.”


Maria L. La Ganga

Duke Helfand