As Sexual Abuse Scandal Breaks Open, Los Angeles Catholics Hear Words of Renunciation, Recrimination from Clergy

Yesterday, monsignors and priests across the Los Angeles Catholic diocese read out during Sunday masses an historic letter from Archbishop Jose H. Gomez decrying the Church’s record on child sexual abuse after the court-ordered release of 12,000 pages of documents detailing abuse by priests.

“There is no excuse,” wrote Gomez, for the Archdiocese’s efforts to cover-up the sexual abuse of children: “The priests involved had the duty to be their spiritual fathers and they failed.” 

Gomez also declared Cardinal Roger Mahony, his predecessor as the Archbishop of Los Angeles, “released” from his “administrative or public duties.”

The National Catholic reporter called Gomez’s open rebuke of Mahony “remarkable” given for “br[eaking] with the unspoken but nearly ironclad rule of the culture of Catholic hierarchy that bishops do not publicly criticize other bishops.”

For his part, Mahony responded to Gomez with an open letter published at his personal blog which offered an apologetic account of his own evolving response to the abuse crisis, including his lack of training in how to handle abuse during his studies in social work during the 1960s and his on-the-job learning from “mistakes” during the 1980s.

“The ‘we didn’t know’ defense quickly wears thin against the details contained in the 12,000 pages of documents just released by the court in Los Angeles,” said a staff editorial at the National Catholic Reporter, which blamed “clergy culture” for warping priests’ priorities and ethics.

“In their fierce allegiance to that exclusive club at all costs, in their willingness to preserve the façade of holiness and the faithful’s high notion of ordination, they lost sight of simple human decency and the most fundamental demands of the gospel,” the NCR continued.

“There are no heroes in the Vatican structures, on up to the pope, among those who years ago could have demanded a review of the documents, come to the same conclusions as Gomez and removed Mahony long ago. It would have saved the church of Los Angeles years of suspense and enormous amounts of money. We say we believe that the truth will set us free. In too many dioceses today, the truth remains hidden and the church remains in chains fashioned by its bishops.”

The NCR’s charge that hierarchy itself to blame was echoed in the words of one Los Angeles-area Monsignor this weekend. As reported in the Los Angeles Times, Monsignor Clement Connolly blamed “institutional malignancy” for “shap[ing] the culture of the church” and its “decision making.”

But reviews of steps taken in recent years by the Los Angeles Archdiocese reveals a hierarchical bureaucracy still acting innocent to its own structural complicity in the privileging of the interests of priests over the dignity of children.

In its “Safeguard the Children” program, the Archdiocese has focused on efforts like volunteer screening and facilities and grounds safety, like identifying and securing “secluded spaces.”

But really, can anything safeguard children more than a radical grassroots reconceptualization of the rights, power, access, and authority of religious leaders, something that can only be taught by parents at home?

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Joanna Brooks is the author of The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith (Free Press / Simon & Schuster, 2012) and a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches.