Feb 3, 2013

The Apologia of Cardinal Mahony

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

This week the Los Angeles Diocese finally released all 30,000 abuse related files. They came with a very public censure of Cardinal Mahony by Archbishop Jose Gomez. And Cardinal Mahony took to his blog to defend his record with a rebuttal letter. It is a startlingly open conflict between two church officials.

Wrote Gomez:

I find these files to be brutal and painful reading. The behavior described in these files is terribly sad and evil. 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.

. . .

I cannot undo the failings of the past that we find in these pages. Reading these files, reflecting on the wounds that were caused, has been the saddest experience I've had since becoming your Archbishop in 2011.

My predecessor, retired Cardinal Roger Mahony, has expressed his sorrow for his failure to fully protect young people entrusted to his care. Effective immediately, I have informed Cardinal Mahony that he will no longer have any administrative or public duties. Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Curry has also publicly apologized for his decisions while serving as vicar for clergy. I have accepted his request to be relieved of his responsibility as the regional bishop of Santa Barbara. [emphasis added]

As discussed, the small percentage of these files released recently exposed a years long pattern of collusion between Mahony and Curry to protect abusive priests from prosecution and the Church from scandal at the expense of children's safety. While the dialogue is shocking, it is very much of a piece with revelations in numerous dioceses through the years.

After losing a long, drawn out legal battle to keep the files under seal, Mahony is now defending the record he and the archdiocese tried so hard to keep secret. His letter to Archbishop Gomez reads in part:

Nothing in my own background or education equipped me to deal with this grave problem. In two years [1962—1964] spent in graduate school earning a Master’s Degree in Social Work, no textbook and no lecture ever referred to the sexual abuse of children. While there was some information dealing with child neglect, sexual abuse was never discussed.

. . .

During these intervening years a small number of cases did arise. I sought advice from several other Bishops across the country, including Cardinal John O’Connor of New York, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, and then Bishop Adam Maida of Green Bay. I consulted with our Episcopal Conference frequently. All the advice was to remove priests from active ministry if there was reasonable suspicion that abuse had occurred, and then refer them to one of the several residential treatment centers across the country for evaluation and recommendation.

This procedure was standard across the country for all Arch/Dioceses, for School Districts, for other Churches, and for all Youth Organizations that dealt with minors. We were never told that, in fact, following these procedures was not effective, and that perpetrators were incapable of being treated in such a way that they could safely pursue priestly ministry.

I wouldn't dispute that Mahony's social work education failed to prepare him for the issue of sex abuse. The field of psychology is still playing catch up when it comes to understanding the ramifications of sex abuse and how to treat both survivors and perpetrators. So I'm not without sympathy for the situation of a bishop like Mahony when confronted with a situation that was completely outside of his frame of reference. But his rendition skirts a number of salient points.

Both Mahony and Curry obviously knew the offending priests in their charge were committing crimes. We know they knew that because they went to great lengths to protect them from the authorities. According to their own words, they were sending the priests to out of state facilities less to help them heal than to avoid prosecution. They went out of their way to keep them away from local therapists who might have to comply with reporting laws, even going so far as to speculate that finding a therapist who was also a lawyer might be a way to protect counseling under privilege. So while Mahony may have been somewhat ignorant about the psychological ramifications, he was not ignorant of his obligations to the law and the public, and how to dodge both.

It's also untrue that Mahony had no idea that sex offenders couldn't be remediated. In at least one case, Mahony had been told by a treating physician to keep an abusive priest away from children. He failed to do so.

Mahony also does in this letter what every bit of apologia from Catholic officials can be counted on to do -- minimize the damage they've caused in the past while expressing dismay at the lack of credit for more recent improvements. He also takes several swipes at Gomez for not questioning the current policies as if the current policies were the issue.

Straw men, self-pity, self-righteousness, and incredible tone-deafness... Cardinal Mahony has the classic Catholic Church response down pat.

There is much about the situation in the Los Angeles Diocese that is unprecedented: the punitive stripping of duties, the senior status of the major players, the public conflict between the new archbishop and the former one. But, is it still just style over subtance?

Victims were quick to point out the contrast between Mahony's pared-down local standing and his continued position as a cardinal who travels frequently to Rome and remains in good standing there.

The decision "is little more than window dressing. Cardinal Mahony is still a very powerful prelate," Joelle Casteix, the Western regional director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said at a Friday news conference outside the Los Angeles cathedral. "He's a very powerful man in Rome and still a very powerful man in Los Angeles."

. . .

Mahony is a member of three Vatican departments, including the Holy See's all-important economic affairs office, and he remains a member of the College of Cardinals. At 76, he is still eligible to vote in a conclave to elect a new pope.

Meanwhile, the Vatican has been incredibly tight-lipped about the whole situation. They have thus far refused to comment, and a spokesman for the Los Angeles Diocese claims they are unsure as to whether or not the pope even knows about it. But this is typical of Vatican priorities. As the National Catholic Reporter points out, priestly abuse still ranks far below a host of social issues on which the Church is determined to remain as regressive as possible.

It would be difficult to develop a script more revelatory of the confounding priorities of the Vatican than that contained in the news of recent days. Real scandal -- covering up the rape of children, compromising the church's reputation with bizarre behavior and sexual shenanigans by its priests -- is met with either silence from on high or unpersuasive explanations.

Meanwhile, advocates of open discussion about church teaching on women, celibacy, contraceptives and homosexuality -- advocates who have advanced questions, not scandal -- are met swiftly by the long arm of the law in the form of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

What the church finds deserving of its wrath in light of what it will tolerate to preserve the clerical culture and protect bishops is increasingly inexplicable to anyone outside that culture.

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