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Discontent and disaffection grow as L.A. archdiocese dismantles ministries

Los Angeles

There is growing disarray and disaffection in the Los Angeles archdiocese among priests and laity. One Los Angeles priest, writing to a priest friend in another diocese (see accompanying letter), said Cardinal Roger Mahony has sold his priests “down the river.” He wrote, “We’re all trying to survive these days.”

The archdiocese is being battered by a four-pronged assault. The Catholics are beleaguered by front-page news of further indictments of former local priests on sex abuse charges. Gay priests fear the Vatican may make them scapegoats for the crisis. Pastors are hit by a marked drop (8 to 9 percent) in weekly donations, and priests and laity have apparently reacted with quiet fury at the means and suddenness of archdiocesan dismemberment of traditional archdiocesan ministries to campuses, prisons, Asians, Hispanics, African-Americans, persons with disabilities, gays and lesbians, interfaith and ecumenical activities and pro-life work.

There is the continuing perception that in some way the costs associated with the new $190 million cathedral are linked to the financial crisis -- if only because the energy required to raise that money took away from needed fundraising in other areas.

On the first item, sexual abuse: Under a 1994 California law that overturns statute of limitation restrictions in cases of child molestation, two more former Los Angeles priests and a retired priest (intercepted on a Russia-bound cruise ship and returned to Los Angeles), were indicted on sex abuse charges at the end of September.

On the latter item, the closure of outreach ministries, even Mahony’s regional bishops apparently did not know the extent of the plans. They were aware there’d be some layoffs, but not that entire departments would be closed.

The remarks of archdiocesan priests, who spoke on condition that they not be identified, range from outrage to some sympathy for Mahony’s plight.

The letter from the Los Angeles priest to a friend said, “Never have the L.A. priests been so united in anything as now; united [against] Mahony who has sold us down the river to try to save his own episcopal ass. He got the rest of the bishops to do the same in Dallas. Now, of course, the homophobia is also running rampant. What a mess!”

The priest said he told a congregation, “The only time I would step in that new cathedral, almost universally known as the Taj Mahony, would be for Mahony’s funeral.” He said the congregation applauded.

A second Los Angeles priest, privy to these remarks, said, “These are views at one end of the spectrum, but more and more priests are moving toward that end of the spectrum. Almost all of us have some feelings like that, though his are extreme.

“At the other end, there are people who believe that this is the time to really rally around the archbishop,” said the second priest, “and I think there’s fewer and fewer of those. The signals are just too mixed.” He said that all the priests in the archdiocese want their relationship with the archbishop to work, both for the church and for themselves, “and sometimes that makes us blind to the reality.”

The reality now, he said, is, “I think increasingly the priests are coming to a more critical stance. There’s a universal perception that as an archdiocese we’re in tremendous disarray right now.”

A third priest, who attended a meeting of the archdiocese’s 20 deans immediately after the cutbacks, said Mahony “shared all these frustrations. I must say in his defense, he did listen. He was not sure how much can be done and feels backed into the corner by the financial figures.”

This priest said he personally wanted to keep the situation in balance. He said the cardinal realized it was a grievous mistake not being there at the Sept. 10 meeting when the cutbacks, due to a $4.3 million budget deficit, were announced. The priest said Mahony was badly advised by the vicar general, Msgr. Terrance Fleming, who suggested the archbishop not attend.

“The cardinal feels this sorely,” the priest told NCR. The priest had talked to a number of people who he said have been let go, and understands their grief, not least because the archdiocese had seen this financial shortfall coming “for two-and-a-half years. Honestly I feel bad for [Mahony], the pressure he’s been under since January, carrying all the scandal, now the financial shortfall, and a lot of anger, while trying to keep the church going. He’s not the bad guy. Some decisions were not so good, and he’s aware of it.”

As far as the gay priests’ concerns go, he said, “I’m not gay, but of priests I know I do think they’re very conscious, given the things being thrown around by the Vatican, that anything could happen these days. Pedophilia is not a homosexual issue. That’s not the reason all this has happened.”

On the drop in parish collections, this priest said he saw it as linked to the declining economy and probably to the concern that the collection money was going toward the cost of sexual abuse case financial settlements.

“We have to remind and convince the laity that’s not the case,” he said. “So far it has been covered by insurance. And even into the future a chunk of settlement might still be covered by insurance already in place,” he said. “That would be great.”

In the middle of this storm, the archdiocese is beginning its regional synod meetings in October. These synod meetings are invitation only, closed to the press and observers.

“Concern over the synod is high,” said one prominent area church worker. She wondered whether Mahony would try to use the synod “for purposes of control” or even whether those attending might ask, under the circumstances, that the synod be suspended.

Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large. His e-mail address is arthurjones@attbi.com

National Catholic Reporter, October 11, 2002