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Cardinal Roger Mahony has been admonishedby a national lay-Catholic review board for his hardball legal tactics in the clergy sex-abuse scandal. Without singling out Mahony, the board also urged all pedophile-priest-concealing bishops to resign. Mahony, by his own admission, has protected such priests, and he is in no rush to release documents sought by prosecutors and trial attorneys.
Barring an uprising of the masses, it’s safe to bet the entire collection plate on Mahony staying — for now.
The Catholic Church has always resisted external pressure to punish bishops for concealing molesters. With few exceptions over the last two decades, bishops themselves must be accused as molesters before they’ve considered resigning. Even then the pope has the last word. Mahony, with his legal muscle and public relations campaigns, has stubbornly toed the Vatican line by facing down scandal. But Los Angeles parishioners and non-pedophile priests have accepted moral failure in their bishops for decades. They are the ones who could pressure Mahony to open up or step down.
Former White House chief of staff Leon Panetta, a member of the National Review Board assembled by Catholic bishops to study pedophilia in the priesthood, says the church’s medieval nature, with its fiefdoms and secrecy, shields those at the top and silences those in the pews. “I don’t think anyone ought to imply that Mahony does not bear responsibility for concealing priests,” Panetta says, reserving final judgment. “There is still so much that remains hidden. But parishioners are not expressing outrage. So you can’t really expect much to change.”
No wonder, given the entrenched legal proceedings that have kept the public in the dark about the extent of Mahony’s action or inaction and a mainstream media that defer to his power. (In reporting the review board’s findings that 4,000 priests have molested 10,000 children in five decades nationwide, the Los Angeles Times finally called out Mahony for his self-styled image as a reformer recently. The Times failed to mention that it helped create this image through its own compromised editorial dealings with Mahony, his lawyer and PR experts Sitrick and Company.)
Both the splash made by the review board and the brief arousal of the Times dissipated quickly. A spokesman for the board suggested that by calling for bishops to step down, the board had “whacked the ball back into the bishops’ court.” The board simply reverted to what got the church in trouble in the first place: asking the fox to guard the henhouse. Which is really just telling Catholics in Los Angeles that if they want Mahony gone, they have to find the courage to say so.
Panetta and others on the review boardknow this is where the task of forcing accountability belongs — despite their efforts to call Mahony on the carpet — not to mention the earnest attempts of law enforcers and lofty promises of trial lawyers to expose a scandal. Theologians and canon-law experts, however, see an even greater dilemma: the clash of secular moral values with the religious values of the Holy Roman Empire.
By ancient Roman standards, the National Review Board’s call for the resignation of bishops who have placed children in harm’s way is like the Children’s Crusade. “The poor guys have no enforcement authority,” canon lawyer Patrick Wall says of the review board. “Ultimately the bishops decide what’s best.” And bishops generally will answer only to the pope, says Wall, a former judge of a tribunal for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis who now works on behalf of sex-abuse victims. “We kid ourselves when we get these reports from an American perspective,” he says. “The church is set up and run from a Roman Catholic perspective.”
Wall points to more than a dozen U.S. Catholic bishops who have resigned since 1990. Almost all stepped down because of alleged sexual misconduct. The few who were caught covering it up did not exit easily. Cardinal Bernard Law of the Archdiocese of Boston was getting flogged publicly for harboring molesters when he took a secret flight to Rome to tender his resignation in April 2002. Yet the pope rejected the offer and sent Law back to Boston, where collections later plunged by 40 percent and 58 priests signed a petition for him to step down, which he did in December 2002.
Last May, Bishop Thomas O’Brien of the Diocese of Phoenix cut a deal with prosecutors who were about to charge him with obstruction of justice for stonewalling a criminal investigation into allegations of sexual abuse by priests. In return for criminal immunity, O’Brien agreed to resign. However, it was not until he was charged with leaving the scene of a fatal accident that the Vatican formally accepted his resignation.
Bishop Manuel Moreno of the Diocese of Tucson was presiding over a financial crisis made worse by the clergy scandal when Pope John Paul II appointed Bishop Gerald Kicanas to assist him in October 2001, reducing Moreno, whose health was failing, to a figurehead. It was not until Moreno’s health worsened, along with persistent upheaval, that the Vatican accepted his resignation last year in March. In November, Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk pleaded no contest on behalf of his archdiocese to failing to report clergy who sexually abused minors, saving himself the trouble of having to resign.
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.
Bernard Law, Boston — resigned in December 2002 over failure to remove abusive priests.
James McCarthy, New York City — resigned as auxiliary bishop in June 2002 after admitting to sexual affairs with women.
Anthony O’Connell, Palm Beach, Fla. — resigned in March 2002 after admitting to repeatedly molesting a teenage seminarian in the 1970s.
Keith Symons, Palm Beach, Fla. — resigned in June 1998 after admitting to molesting five teenage boys at three different parishes.
Eugene Marino, Atlanta — resigned in July 1990 upon admitting he had “intimate relations” with a female parishioner.