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
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 citys 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
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. OConnor, and Fernando
Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola
Marymount University explain the distinctions.
According to OConnor, 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 regions political
Where the scandal is concerned, OConnor 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. Its 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 dont
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 thats very recent --
it didnt 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
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 Bostons Cardinal Law
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 judges request to
hold off filing new suits pending the courts 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 regions newspaper of record, the
Los Angeles Times. Given the legal communitys 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 Mahonys 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 whats happened in the
past and they know whats going to happen in the future.
Boucher, who said Mahony is under the same pressures and threats
as Law, has something Law didnt 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
hes learned youve got to be up front. Parishioners want
to know that the hierarchy is going through a complete act of contrition
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 hell 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. Well 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 Mahonys 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 OGrady, was
a sexual molester. Mahony said he had never read the diocesan file
on OGrady, who had earlier admitted abusing girls and boys.
OGrady 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
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 doesnt. So, what Mahony
does is up to Cardinal Mahony. But Ill tell you this. I think
that if the documents that come out of L.A. hint at what I think
theyre going to hint, I think Cardinal Mahonys path
should be clear to him, if its not already.
What Ive learned in the past 12 months, continued
Manly, is that any illusion Ive 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, its
monstrous, proportions I never dreamed about. And in terms of dealing
with the church Ive learned there is nothing the hierarchy
wont engage in to prevent the faithful learning the truth
-- the extent of it.
All this talk about were sorry for the victims and
we care. Its 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. Its duplicitous
-- theyve 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
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 whats
going on there, and the lessons learned. Dioceses across the country
can come through this process -- first by cleansing the church by
releasing records theyve held secret for so long. Without
that, I dont 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. Ive
heard statistics that less than 10 percent [of victims] even tell
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 theyve gained
Manly said that in the past year, the court system has learned
that this problem is real, its 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. Thats where this battles 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 weve seen [now] is a willingness on
behalf of the church not to put us through those battles -- which
they will lose anyway. Theyve 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. Its hard for me.
Its 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. Anthonys 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. Anthonys until 1987, when the
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 churchs moral teaching authority by the
Catholic hierarchys 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
Americans nationwide will be watching. As the scandals epicenter
seems poised to shift from Boston to California, to use The Christian
Science Monitors phrase, theres some evidence the national
medias attention will do the same.
Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
National Catholic Reporter, January 31, 2003