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Clergy sex abuse: The darkness continues
February 28th, 2013
By Father Gerald Coleman, SS

In 2002 the Boston Globe revealed in graphic detail the decades-long abuse of more than 130 children by former priest John Geoghan. As the Globe continued to disclose numerous other cases, victims across the country created an avalanche of reports of being sexually abused by priests. In the Boston area alone, more than 800 victims eventually accused 248 priests of abusing them as children.

The crisis quickly threatened to engulf the entire Catholic Church, precipitating an apology in 2002 by John Paul II, American cardinals called to the Vatican for an emergency summit, and the U.S. bishops establishing a National Review Board to examine the church’s policies regarding the protection of children.

What gradually became clear was even more devastating: the fact that many bishops knew about the abuse and allowed it to continue. It has now been widely reported that Cardinal Mahony and Bishop Curry in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles shielded priests known to be sex abusers. According to files released Jan. 21, Cardinal Mahony and Bishop Curry (who was the archdiocesan vicar for clergy) discussed how to shield at least three priests from prosecution in a series of memos in 1986 and 1987.

This revelation led Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez to take the unprecedented step of removing Cardinal Mahony from “any administrative or public duties” and accepting Bishop Curry’s “request to be relieved of his responsibility as the regional bishop of Santa Barbara.”

New York Times columnist Frank Bruni wrote that the files released by court order in January by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles “showed that Cardinal Roger M. Mahony’s impulse, when confronted with priests who had molested children, was to hush it up and keep law enforcement officials at bay.”

In his defense, Cardinal Mahony wrote that when he first began to meet with victims in 2006, he did not grasp “the full and lasting impact these horrible acts would have” on children. He claimed that “nothing” in his “background” equipped him “to deal with this grave problem.” Numerous commentators have replied in astonishment: One does not need special training to know that the rape and psychological torture of children must be immediately stopped. Common sense dictates that a child molested by an adult, and in these cases a priest, is grievously damaged.

The editor of conservative astonishingly names this cover-up a “scandal” which demonstrates “how very entrenched the ‘filth’ still is, and those responsible have still not yet been fully accountable.”

February marked the first anniversary of a four-day symposium at Rome’s Gregorian University called “Toward Healing and Renewal,” an international summit on clergy sex abuse. During that meeting, Msgr. (now bishop) Charles Scicluna of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said that “it is simply not acceptable for bishops to fail to act when reports of abuse surface... (W)e need tools ... for the accountability of bishops.”

Cardinal Mahony has been an outspoken voice for the rights of immigrants and was a tireless ally among Latinos when he was the archbishop of Los Angeles (1985-2011). Should this legacy be overshadowed by the way he shielded certain priest abusers of children? This is the same question as “the Lance Armstrong conundrum.” He used performance-enhancing drugs during the seven years when he won the Tour de France. During the same period, he started Lifestrong, a cancer support organization.

Can we separate his actions into free-standing fragments? He did good things (fighting cancer) and bad things (lying, cheating). Can good people do bad things? Can bad people do good things? In Armstrong’s case, the good and bad things are too interdependent to isolate. When assessing his career, everything has to matter. In the case of Cardinal Mahony and Bishop Curry, the same standard holds. We must not allow immigration commitments or any other compelling Christian concern to minimize sex abuse protectionism.

In the Feb. 8 edition of The Tidings, Los Angeles’ diocesan weekly, Archbishop Gomez reflects on recent conversations he has had with Cardinal Mahony and Bishop Curry. He counsels that “we need to ask again for forgiveness for the sins of the past and for our own failings.”

Archbishop Gomez is right in writing that “God wants us to be great.”

Greatness in this case, however, calls for absolute transparency and honesty. Nothing so scars, violates and unravels the soul as does sexual abuse. There is no greater form of soul violence on the planet. Teenage suicide, the second leading cause of death among young people in the Western world, is 80 percent of the time the result of sexual abuse.

Compassion is owed first and foremost to the victims. Healing must be our real preoccupation, not self-protection and security. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus told his disciples to “watch.” They fell asleep. They missed the lesson.

Falling asleep by protecting priests who abuse children cannot be tolerated.

Sulpician Father Coleman is vice president, corporate ethics for the Daughters of Charity Health System.



From March 1, 2013 issue of Catholic San Francisco.


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