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The review board’s urgings are not what is likely to change the Catholic Church, experts say. At the institutional level, Rome stands in the way. “The Vatican is at fault for not demanding the resignation of the bishops who were involved in cover-ups,” says the Rev. Richard McBrien, a theology professor at Notre Dame University. “No bishop, apart from [Cardinal] Law, has resigned because of involvement in the cover-up of sexual abuse by priests. I do not believe that any of the bishops in question will resign.”
So where does that leave Mahony? A.W. Richard Sipe, a former Benedictine monk who’s now a psychotherapist, author and expert on clergy sexual abuse, says Mahony is in a double bind: He can give up the documents he is protecting, which could implicate him beyond what he already has admitted; or he can try to prevail in court and be criticized for obstructing justice. “There is no noble way out for him except to give up the documents and resign,” Sipe says. “But he thinks he can get away with it. Which shows Rome that the American Catholic Church cannot be compromised. Then he becomes Rome’s good boy.”
That leaves the people in the parish to pursue regime change — and, after all, it is their church. But as the most powerful prelate in the United States, Mahony must crush the notion that lay Catholics have any say over how to heal an infected archdiocese, according to the Rev. Thomas Doyle, a chaplain in the U.S. Air Force and a canon-law expert. “It’s a monarchy,” Doyle says. “Bishops are slowly being exposed in their duplicity, but Mahony will ride it out until there’s an indictment or some document disclosure or some report from the grand jury.”
Fred Allison, a spokesman for the Tucson diocese, says that some bishops may be struggling with whether to resign under fire or wait until they have righted their diocese before quietly stepping down. “Maybe after the problems are fixed is the time to go,” he says. Tucson plaintiffs’ lawyer Lynne Cadigan finds this idea laughable. Of Mahony she says, “You don’t get to be cardinal and step down just because of a flood of civil lawsuits and allegations of a criminal conspiracy. Rome could care less. It annoys them that a district attorney could dictate terms to them.”
Aside from resignations, a remedy bishops supposedly are addressing is “fraternal correction.” Experts find this lacking for an institution that has steadfastly refused to police itself. “Bishops are loath to tell another bishop what to do, lest someone attempt to do the same to him,” McBrien says. “Fraternal correction simply does not work.”
“It’s a great idea, sort of like peer review in the medical profession,” Wall says. “But the bishops have been raised in a Roman culture that is military in nature. They take a long view of history. Loyalty and faithfulness are rewarded. These men have been raised in the Latin tradition since they were 14. This is all they have.” Self-preservation compels them to sacrifice errant priests so the public sees them doing something. “The bishops don’t do battle like the Navy SEALs,” says Wall. “They aren’t looking to bring everyone home.”
Review-board members will not say why Cardinal Law, Cardinal Edward Egan of New York and Bishop O’Brien of Phoenix were singled out for concealing priests while criticism of Mahony was limited to hardball legal tactics. Perhaps the board is applying a double standard. “There are a lot of double standards among the bishops,” Panetta replies, noting that Mahony preaches openness but practices legal defense first. Then there is his PR strategy. “We encouraged bishops to get out in front of the scandal,” review-board spokesman William Burleigh says. “Others have done it too.”
Yet Los Angeles is the crown jewel of California’s dioceses. And Mahony is the head of the Metropolitan See of Los Angeles, which includes five “suffragan” dioceses from San Diego to Monterey. Mahony would be the last to resign, experts say. Even approving of others doing so based on pressure from lay overseers would for him be like bowing to the hoi polloi.
Pressure from lay Catholics and priests could be another story, depending on what happens in church on Sundays. “The best way to get rid of a bishop is if the priests no longer support him or there’s a decline in donations,” Wall says. And what would cause such a reaction? “If church documents come out or an accused priest starts to talk, then the game is on.”
Robeless in Rome: U.S. Roman Catholic bishops who have resigned since 1990
Thomas O’Brien, Phoenix, Ariz. — resigned in June 2003 as prosecutors were set to charge him with obstructing a criminal investigation of abusive priests. The Vatican accepted his resignation in June.
Manuel Moreno, Tucson, Ariz. — citing health reasons, resigned in March 2003 after apologizing for mishandling of abusive clergy.