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Mahony faxes positive spin

Los Angeles

Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony, in an Oct. 8 fax to his priests, has assured them he “listened deeply to their concerns” regarding the closing of archdiocesan ministries to prisons, campuses and ethnic communities during the previous day’s annual presbyteral meeting.

But, said Mahony, despite pleas from some priests for a moratorium on the cutbacks until there had been broader consultation, “the funds simply are not there to return to ‘business as usual.’ ”

In a fax that put a positive spin on an event that drew, at best, mixed reviews from the priests (NCR Oct. 18), the cardinal wondered if “it was God’s Providence that the archdiocesan management team did not carry out adequate consultation with you, the priests, and with other leadership and consultative groups across the archdiocese”

He wrote: “I accept full responsibility for that lack of proper consultation, but I also feel that this mistake created a positive reaction -- and brought about a collective concern for the essential mission of the church in our midst.”

He told the priests, more than half of whom had been present at the presbyteral meeting, “Your enthusiastic commitment to our essential apostolates and ministries must be shared broadly at each of your regional synod assemblies. Allow our synod participants to catch the same spirit and fire!

“While I cannot simply reverse the decision to balance our archdiocesan budget,” Mahony said, “I can engage you, the regional bishops, and secretariat directors to look at all possible options, and together search for a phased-in solution consistent with available resources, pastoral priorities and the work of the synod. However, given the wonderful and committed voices of so many of you, I wish to add many of you to that process. I experience a new and special bond among us, one that I deeply wish to continue forward.”

If some priests were deeply disturbed by the financial cutbacks, some have been equally bothered by having to present themselves over the past months at [pastoral regional offices and parish sites] to be fingerprinted.

The bishops of California’s 12 dioceses last year made that decision to comply with a state law that requires all professionals who come into regular contact with minors to be fingerprinted. Though not all priests fit precisely into the category -- not all parishes, for example, have schools -- the bishops, according to state Catholic conference officials, decided the easiest route was that all priests submit.

Said one priest, later, “a lay friend of mine was almost in tears as a car pulled up carrying a load of old priests who looked like they were all over 90 and all looked duly humiliated, but seemed not quite sure what was happening to them. A priest friend of mine remarked that the old monsignori, now dead, would have swallowed poison rather than submit to the indignity.”

To spare its priests the public humiliation, the San Diego diocese contracted with a private “live scan” agency that brought its equipment to the priests’ annual convocation. The agency then sent the prints to both the FBI and the California Department of Justice.

Other California priests took the fingerprinting in stride.

The remarks of Fr. James Murphy in Sacramento, who was in the last group of priests there to be fingerprinted, was typical of comments from several dioceses when he said, “There’s a sense of sadness there but there’s a realization that we have to do what we have to do. I’ve not heard any grumbling, it’s just part of the new era were living in right now. We have to be so careful in the schoolyard any more with children.”

San Francisco archdiocesan spokesperson Maurice Healy said of the process now nearing completion, “Most priests understand it’s a bit of a bother and bureaucratic, but that we’re doing everything we can to create a safe environment.”

Next year may bring to these same California dioceses a challenge of another sort.

The California legislature has passed legislation, signed by the governor in July, that lifts the statute of limitations on claims against employers accused of failing to take reasonable steps to prevent child sexual abuse by their employees or volunteers.

While the legislation does not mention the Catholic church specifically, California Senate president John Burton told the Los Angeles Times, it was aimed at “deep pockets” defendants such as the Catholic church. Jack Smith, writing in Catholic San Francisco, earlier this year, said the bill was sponsored by “trial lawyers specializing in cases against the Catholic church, and by advocates for victims of sexual abuse by priests.”

The provision gives plaintiffs a full calendar year, from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, 2003, to bring their suits.

NCR checked with Catholic conferences in two other large states, Massachusetts and Texas. In Massachusetts there is no similar legislation mandating widespread fingerprinting, said executive director Gerald D’Avolio, and no parallel legislation to lift the statute of limitations. The conference did cooperate with other interfaith groups and the Massachusetts Council of Churches, he said, on the wording of the state’s clergy abuse reporting legislation.

In Texas, Holy Cross Br. Richard Daly, the Catholic conference’s executive director, said the state legislature meets only every other year and has not been in session since 2001. “All this [sex abuse] turmoil has taken place in the interim,” he said. The sessions resume in January, and he has heard, he said, “that there may be some activity around the statute of limitations on precisely that issue.”

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

National Catholic Reporter, October 25, 2002 [corrected 11/29/2002]