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Church in Crisis -- Spotlight of Scandal Moves Westward

By Arthur Jones - National Catholic Reporter
January 31, 2002

The nationwide Catholic clerical sex abuse scandal is not going away. The spotlight is shifting westward to California, particularly Los Angeles, where hundreds of new sex abuse suits are queuing up before the courts. Already comparisons are being made to the situation in Boston.

Major differences are apparent. For starters, there has not been nearly the outcry from Catholic or media quarters here that there was in Boston. The reason, according to one expert, is that Los Angeles is not a Catholic city in the way Boston is -- the Southern California city’s economic-political structure (despite a recent Catholic mayor) has always been essentially Protestant.

Questions about Los Angeles Cardinal Roger M. Mahony have not been publicly discussed or debated with the intensity that focused on Boston Cardinal Bernard Law. The Los Angeles Times has even editorialized that Mahony has acted aggressively against priests who have abused children.

How much such perceptions will change in the coming months is, of course, unknown. Although the new spate of lawsuits will occur statewide, the main focus will be Los Angeles, the largest archdiocese in the country. Mahony is staring at a severe test of his public credibility in coming months as lawyers for those suing the archdiocese have let it be known that they intend to press for full disclosure of documents related to their cases.

Different cities, different cardinals

In essence, Los Angeles lacks the “critical mass” of critical Catholics that marks Boston. More than 40 percent of the Los Angeles archdiocese is Catholic; more than 50 percent is Catholic in Boston. But it is the immigrant population in Los Angeles that is majority Catholic, not the white population.

Boston College history professor Thomas H. O’Connor, and Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University explain the distinctions.

According to O’Connor, while the city of Boston does have a large new immigrant population that is “very traditional, humble, pious, obedient,” it also has “ ‘old line’ Catholics in city and suburbs [who are] are third- and fourth-generation, increasingly college graduates, middle and upper middle-class, and managers, presidents, CEOs and CFOs of enterprises large and small, private and public, and deeply involved in the region’s political life.”

Where the scandal is concerned, O’Connor explained, “people raise the issue that the Catholic church is not a democracy. Well, neither is General Motors, General Electric. Yet these [Boston Catholics] are used to being consulted on decision-making in their various areas. They expect to be heard. This is a very important consideration in the crisis that developed.”

The historian said Boston Catholics were “not shocked by the evils committed, they live in the world. It’s that these activities were condoned and aided and abetted by people who did not consult them or, if they did consult them, turned their backs on whatever advice was given.”

In Los Angeles, Guerra said the history and role of the Catholic church in the two cities were quite different. “We don’t think of it this way but Los Angeles has historically not been a Catholic city, but historically one of the most Protestant, non-immigrant cities in the country.”

While in Boston the Catholic presence “in a sense dominates and structures how [all Bostonians] talk about religion,” he said, in Los Angeles the Catholic church has hardly been involved in the major institutions or patterns of dialogue.

“Now it is,” he said. Catholics are “now the plurality, the largest religious affiliation. But that’s very recent -- it didn’t really take hold until the 1980s, even the 1990s.”

Unlike in Boston, many of Los Angeles’ elites, civic leaders, and those who lead the civic dialogue either are not Catholic or, if Catholic, it is not the Catholic affiliation that thrust them into the civic or political arena, Guerra said.

“Another contrast,” suggested Guerra, “is that Cardinal Mahony is probably a much better politician than Cardinal Law, a much better politician in a less political town. And that has given him greater stature to deal with [the scandal] and deflect it and handle it. He also had the experience of watching what was going on in Boston -- and learned from it and adjusted accordingly.”

Hundreds of new cases

In interviews with four plaintiffs’ lawyers pursuing hundreds of cases in California, it became clear that while lawyers might agree to legal proceedings that would avoid full-blown trials, they are just as determined to force the archdiocese -- and the other California dioceses -- to divulge extensive documentation on their cases.

As the year opens, plaintiffs’ lawyers anticipate there could be more than 500 new cases filed in the state during 2003. This upsurge is the result of a 2002 change in the California statute of limitations that allows employers of known sexual molesters to be sued during this calendar year. More than 100 new cases have already been filed against the Los Angeles archdiocese.

The four leading lawyers in those cases see Los Angeles’ archbishop under the same kinds of pressures -- though not necessarily with the same consequences -- that forced Boston’s Cardinal Law into retirement.

As local cases mount -- and the California hierarchy seeks to mediate the hundreds of new cases rather than battle them individually in the courts -- lawyers have agreed to the judge’s request to hold off filing new suits pending the court’s decision on mediation.

NCR (see accompanying story) has also illustrated what Angelenos have learned in the past 12 months by excerpting highlights from sex abuse coverage in the region’s newspaper of record, the Los Angeles Times. Given the legal community’s intense interest, there also are several excerpts from the legal newspaper, the Los Angeles Daily Journal.

NCR requested on-the-record interviews with Mahony and archdiocesan lawyers. These were refused on the following grounds:

“The archdiocese is currently in discussions with attorneys representing those people who have cases against us as a result of the new law. We hope that these discussions lead to mediation for all of the cases against us. Mediation is preferable to conflict, and all parties have stated this in various ways over the past few weeks. We believe we are adequately insured for all claims that may be brought against us as a result of the new law.

“The court has barred all parties to these discussions from talking about the proceedings in public or with the media. That includes a prohibition on discussing specific cases and actions. We will abide by those instructions from the court. It is impossible to reconcile your request to discuss clergy sexual abuse issues with the order put forth by the court. The archdiocese will continue to reach out to victims of abuse to provide counseling and spiritual support. We seek healing for victims and for the entire church. That is why we will also continue to follow and modify as needed our policies and procedures regarding sexual abuse by clergy, policies that have been in place since 1988.”

Lawyers favor mediation

NCR interviewed the plaintiffs’ lawyers on four topics: their observations on Mahony’s situation as leader of the archdiocese; on contrasts and comparisons between the Boston and Los Angeles situations; on what they have learned in the past 12 months of dealing with the Catholic hierarchy; and their perspectives on the victims’ situation. All favor current attempts at mediation, providing the documents and details are made public, even if the plaintiffs’ names are not.

The lawyers were Raymond Boucher of Beverly Hills, a Catholic; Jeffrey Anderson of St. Paul, Minn., who is not Catholic but was married in the Catholic church; Katherine Freberg, an Episcopalian; and John Manly, a Catholic. The latter two were partners in the Marcus Ryan DiMaria case in which DiMaria charged that he was abused while a high school student in the Orange, Calif., diocese. He won a $5.2 million settlement from the Los Angeles and Orange dioceses. Freberg and Manly now practice separately.

Of Mahony Freberg said, “Anyone [who is] part of the hierarchy is certainly under a tremendous amount of pressure. If they come into this with dirty hands they know what’s happened in the past and they know what’s going to happen in the future.”

Boucher, who said Mahony is under the same pressures and threats as Law, “has something Law didn’t have -- experience and a chance to watch what emerged out of Boston and learn from the mistakes that took place. Roger Mahony has a chance to save himself and a save a lot of embarrassment if he does the right thing, if he’s learned you’ve got to be up front. Parishioners want to know that the hierarchy is going through a complete act of contrition and penance.”

Continued Boucher, “[Mahony] has the opportunity to change the face of the final chapter in Los Angeles and not duplicate what happened in Boston. I hope he’ll cooperate in turning over documents in a forthright manner, work to ensure that any priest accused of molestation is properly investigated, and if [guilty of] inappropriate behavior, promptly removed. We’ll see what kind of man and leader emerges in the coming weeks and months.”

Said Anderson, “There are two differences between Mahony and Law, right now as I see it. The first is that Mahony’s problems first began to surface in the trial in 1998 in which we had him on the witness stand [as former bishop of Stockton] and I subpoenaed him as an adverse witness.” In that case, apparently, Mahony was not convincing and the jury awarded the plaintiffs $30 million.

“It was Howard v. Diocese of Stockton,” said Anderson, “and the jury did not believe [Mahony] and returned a verdict against the diocese for conduct when Mahony was bishop.” In the case, two brothers sued the Stockton diocese in civil court. The plaintiffs contended that Mahony and other church officials had known since 1976 the abusing priest, Oliver O’Grady, was a sexual molester. Mahony said he had never read the diocesan file on O’Grady, who had earlier admitted abusing girls and boys. O’Grady was jailed, then deported back to Ireland, defrocked.

On the other hand, Law “has never been adjudicated by any court,” said Anderson. “The other difference,” he continued, “is that the [pressure] in the media and from the laity did not mount in Los Angeles and Stockton the way it did in Boston. And there are two reasons. First, that was one case, and there has been a disgorgement of a large number of cases [in Boston]. And so the litigation in Boston is far more advanced than currently in California.

“We will be in California in three or four months where they were in Boston three or four months ago,” Anderson said. “And in three or four months, as the documents start to come to us and we bring them to the public, Mahony will be in precisely the same predicament that Law is -- that what is laid bare and exposed is a long pattern of deception, concealment and sinister activity.”

The two cities and situations are not comparable, however, said Manly of Costa Mesa, Calif. “Boston has a horrific statute of limitations issue that California doesn’t. So, what Mahony does is up to Cardinal Mahony. But I’ll tell you this. I think that if the documents that come out of L.A. hint at what I think they’re going to hint, I think Cardinal Mahony’s path should be clear to him, if it’s not already.

“What I’ve learned in the past 12 months,” continued Manly, “is that any illusion I’ve had about this being 1 or 2 percent of priests in the U.S. has been shattered. This is clearly a national problem. Spiritually and emotionally, it’s monstrous, proportions I never dreamed about. And in terms of dealing with the church I’ve learned there is nothing the hierarchy won’t engage in to prevent the faithful learning the truth -- the extent of it.

“All this talk about we’re sorry for the victims and we care. It’s just words,” said Manly. “All these folks have run out and set up these victims’ hot lines and then they secretly staff them with attorneys. It’s duplicitous -- they’ve learned nothing.”

“Boston has taught us several things,” said Boucher, “that we have to push, and push hard to get the information. That two things need to emerge from the process -- one, what happened and why, and two, that things are put in place so this can never happen again.”

“Anyone involved in these cases is watching Boston,” said Freberg. “I also believe every cardinal and bishop in the country turns every morning to their local paper to read what’s going on there, and the lessons learned. Dioceses across the country can come through this process -- first by cleansing the church by releasing records they’ve held secret for so long. Without that, I don’t know how you go on the road to solving the problems, getting recovery for the victims and moving beyond scandal.”

She is equally “concerned and convinced,” she said, “that by far the majority [of victims] will not come forward. We always had the impression from the cases we heard, contacts with victims, that this was the tip of the iceberg,” said Freberg. “I’ve heard statistics that less than 10 percent [of victims] even tell someone.”

Nor does she think the scandal will necessarily ebb. “If it has been going on, based on hundreds of victims, from the 1940s through the 1990s, with consistent molestation in every generation, why would we come to the conclusion the molestations will cease?”

Freberg insisted, “Secrecy is not the answer. These victims who were abused as kids will eventually grow up to be adults with adult voices. They will eventually speak out when they’ve gained maturity.”

Manly said that in the past year, the court system “has learned that this problem is real, it’s not false allegations. The system has learned the extent to which these victims have suffered and the extent to which the hierarchy, for years, has lied to the authorities. The archdiocese has not learned anything. Except some pretty good public relations strategy.

“And the key to this is the documents. Get the documents. If the hierarchy comes clean with the documents the public will know. That’s where this battle’s going to be fought.”

Level of candor has changed

In the past year, said Freberg, “the candor level has changed. Having litigated against the church in the past, discovering the facts of the case, what we’ve seen [now] is a willingness on behalf of the church not to put us through those battles -- which they will lose anyway. They’ve spent a lot of time and money and effort to keep information secret and lost.”

If change is occurring, said Anderson, it is largely the effect of people within and outside the church “exerting pressure on the church so that it is cracking, and resulting in reformation. I think it is transformative.”

Boucher, a former altar boy, said, “I love the Catholic church. This is one of the most painful things I have ever faced. The hardest thing is facing the betrayal, not so much by the priest, but by those in power and authority, and their refusal to be straightforward on this issue. Their unchanging demands that no scandal comes to the church, irrespective of what sins it may create; to lie about what happened to save face and save money. It’s hard for me.

“It’s harder for the victims,” he said. “The shame is there for them for life. It is difficult to become survivors and to realize it was not their fault. They did not cause the priest to molest them.”

Nationwide, lawyers handling these cases have been frustrated for years by institutional intransigence -- whether facing off against dioceses, or congregations such as the Benedictines in Minnesota (NCR, Dec. 13 and 27) or the Franciscans in Santa Barbara. In the latter instance, in July 2000, plaintiffs’ lawyers complained that they had achieved only “a hollow victory, another example of the Roman Catholic church throwing money at a problem which has plagued it for centuries: pedophile priests,” in the words of the Los Angeles Daily Journal on Sept. 18, 2000. That case was a mediated complaint against the Santa Barbara Province of the Order of Friars Minor. More than 40 choirboy victims were allegedly assaulted by a dozen friars at St. Anthony’s Seminary. In his diary one friar “gushed about the ‘constant supply of attractive little boys’ ” in the Santa Barbara Boys Choir, which practiced and performed at St. Anthony’s until 1987, when the seminary closed.

Nationwide, too, the damage to the church is constant in its loss of public credibility.

All four lawyers spoke at some length on what they see as the irreparable damage done to the church’s moral teaching authority by the Catholic hierarchy’s efforts to deny, deceive and delay handling of the scandal. In Los Angeles, they believe, it may not be too late for the hierarchy to steer the issue into clearer, cleaner waters.

Americans nationwide will be watching. As the scandal’s epicenter seems poised to shift from Boston to California, to use The Christian Science Monitor’s phrase, there’s some evidence the national media’s attention will do the same.

Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large. His e-mail address is arthurjones@attbi.com

National Catholic Reporter, January 31, 2003


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