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Post-Dallas: Los Angeles churches hear cardinal’s apology

Los Angeles

Priests in 287 archdiocesan churches on Sunday, June 23, read Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony’s apology to those sexually abused by priests and to Southern California’s Catholic laity, variously outraged or disenchanted with the hierarchy’s handling of the crisis.

Mahony asked “for your forgiveness for not understanding earlier the extent of the problem, and for not taking swifter action to remove from ministry anyone who had abused a minor in the past.”

It was heard in Our Lady of Grace Parish, Encino, where parishioners had met to discuss the crisis and had sent a letter through their regional bishop to the June U.S. bishops’ meeting in Dallas.

After hearing the letter, parishioner Myrna Delany-Dettore commented that the cardinal should have said “all of this in the first place. He didn’t need to spend hundreds of thousands on a spinmeister when he could have used the money constructively to help the poor.” Mahony recently hired a high-profile public relations firm (NCR, June 21).

“All he had to do,” she said, “was what he now finally has done: address the laity in a simple manner, humbly apologize and be truly repentant of his part in the scandal, assure the laity he would take appropriate civil action, put an end to the cover-up and deception.”

The cardinal said the crisis had caused him “sleepless nights” for the victims and stirred “anger” at the perpetrators. Delany-Dettore said it was “the hierarchy, who were thought to be holy, supposedly sane, moral men [who] did the greater wrong. First of all to the victims, second to the laity. I know their reasoning was to protect the church, but it was a serious error of judgment, and that goes back centuries and rests at the feet of the Vatican.”

Mahony was reporting back to the people from the Dallas meeting. He said that Los Angeles had a zero-tolerance policy even before the new recommended national norms were adopted. But the cardinal has a difficult job ahead convincing the laity he’s ahead of the curve and has been there all the time.

The toughest challenge to his credibility is the case of Fr. Michael Stephen Baker. Baker, it is alleged, was shifted around to nine further assignments even after he told Mahony of his sexual misconduct. On the fiscal front, Mahony secretly settled some charges against Baker at a cost of $1.3 million; on the personnel front, Baker was not ousted from the archdiocese until Mahony permitted him to retire in 2000.

In two other cases charging inaction, two sets of brothers have filed RICO (Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) suits against Mahony for concealing criminal activities regarding his handling of alleged abusing priests Fr. Carl Sutphin and Fr. Michael Wempe.

A Los Angeles grand jury has subpoenaed documents in the Baker and Wempe cases.

Whatever the outcome of those inquiries, Delany-Dettore said, “Despite these depressing thoughts, I am very hopeful for the future of our church. People for the most part are rock solid in their faith -- you see it in their active participation. I’m even hopeful the hierarchy will eventually enter the 21st century. I think the Holy Spirit is very busy right now imparting a few hard-earned lessons and cleaning house. And we need now to encourage and support our good hardworking priests so dedicated to God and the people.”

Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large. His e-mail address is ajones96@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, July 5, 2002