Breaking Through Clerical Solidarity in L.A.

The gesture will probably strike many non-Catholics and quite a few Catholics as too little and too late. But still, given the past behavior of the Catholic hierarchy over the global disclosures of clerical child abuse, the letter from Archbishop Jose Gomez read aloud at churches throughout the Archdiocese of Los Angeles yesterday was something of a breakthrough, as was the release (ordered by a court, to be sure) last week by the Archdiocese of personnel files relating to 122 priests accused of molesting children. Among other things, the files richly document the efforts of higher-ups, most notably Gomez’ predecessor Cardinal Roger Mahoney, in hiding the truth.

As Joanna Brooks of Religion Dispatches reports, Gomez’s letter is blunt:

“There is no excuse,” wrote Gomez, for the Archdiocese’s efforts to cover-up the sexual abuse of children: “The priests involved had the duty to be their spiritual fathers and they failed.”

Gomez also declared Cardinal Roger Mahony, his predecessor as the Archbishop of Los Angeles, “released” from his “administrative or public duties.”

An editorial in the National Catholic Reporter spelled it out:

[Gomez] broke with the unspoken but nearly ironclad rule of the culture of Catholic hierarchy that bishops do not publicly criticize other bishops. That courtesy extended even to the most egregious examples of ecclesial malfeasance — the deliberate and persistent hiding of criminal activities by priests. No one to this point had uttered a word against a predecessor, not in New York or Connecticut, not in Philadelphia or Milwaukee, not in Seattle or Santa Fe. There were “mistakes made,” they would say, and offer vacuous apologies. For whatever reasons yet unknown, Gomez broke the code.

Second, the language Gomez used was blunt and unqualified. The behavior he found in the files, he said, was “evil.” The acts themselves and the handling of these matters, as the files revealed, showed more than mistakes made, they showed a “terrible failure….”

But the NCR isn’t congratulating much of anyone, even Gomez, who had the documents in question for two years before acting. But that’s nothing compared to the systemic failure to act throughout the Church:

There are no heroes in the Vatican structures, on up to the pope, among those who years ago could have demanded a review of the documents, come to the same conclusions as Gomez and removed Mahony long ago. It would have saved the church of Los Angeles years of suspense and enormous amounts of money. We say we believe the truth will set us free. In too many dioceses today, the truth remains hidden and the church remains in chains fashioned by its bishops.

That would definitely include Mahoney, who has already responded to Gomez’ letter with a self-exculpating effort to spin the whole controversy.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.