Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Settling to hide the truth

Roger Mahony spent millions and kept details of clergy sex abuse secret, but what was the real cost of the deal?

By Jeffrey Anderson, JEFFREY ANDERSON is a staff writer at the L.A. Weekly.
December 5, 2006

THE $60-MILLION settlement announced last week between 45 molestation victims and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles is a brutal reminder that moral crisis cannot be cured through legal compromise.

In those cases, and the hundreds more yet to be settled, victims want the truth to come out about abusive priests; they also want the perpetrators and those who harbored them, including Cardinal Roger Mahony and his hierarchy, to face consequences.

Mahony, for his part, wants to put the whole mess behind him and shield from public view any documents that could provide the truth — while also preserving the finances of his archdiocese.

But here's what is wrong with the mediation approach both sides agreed to: It leads to compromise but not reconciliation. No one can move beyond the past if they don't know what truly happened. No one can prevent relapse without fully understanding what, or who, led to the problem. Now Mahony and his flock of 4.3 million risk the return of a cancer that has stricken the church and eroded its leaders' moral authority.

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Four years ago, the Boston archdiocese set the standard for a cathartic end to scandal. Clergy abuse victims and their lawyers went into court and forced the archdiocese to turn over documents that showed in vivid detail the complicity of Cardinal Bernard Law and his hierarchy in shielding pedophile priests and transferring them to other parishes, where they molested again. The revelations were stunning and led to Law's resignation.

Mahony and his fellow church officials took note and took steps to ensure that no such revelations would occur here. Victims' lawyers in Los Angeles played right into the cardinal's hand by lobbying for a change in the law that allowed hundreds of older claims to be heard. The number of cases was so great that the courts devised a consolidated plan that forced the entire scandal into private mediation for more than two years. With this settlement, these 45 cases will never see a courtroom, where the discovery process might have cracked open Mahony's files.

Plaintiffs' continuing demands that these files be released was the major stumbling block for years. This settlement sets that issue to one side and lets a retired judge decide what the church can keep secret. Victims' lawyers even bargained away their right to appeal. Most likely, this judge will rule the same way another did in a case against the Diocese of Orange last year, unsealing only files about priests who were dead or who had no objections.

No documents, no truth, no closure — for anyone.

Church lawyers argued — and probably still believe — that what happened in Boston was no panacea. Parishes closed; enrollment in the priesthood dropped. The new cardinal faces controversy all the time. But no one in Boston is still speculating about who knew what when, as Catholic Angelenos will be for years to come.

Is this justice? For those who carried their scarred youths into court, seeking an end to years of anguish? Or for loyal Catholics who still wonder whether their parishes or schools will close?

Mahony dug in his heels like the chief executive of an oil company accused of a massive spill. The only difference is that shareholders in a private corporation have the option of dumping stock if its value sinks. The dividend that members of an organized religion seek is not so easy to give up on.

Like a clever executive who is looking at either retirement (to a cushy post at the Vatican) or a stubborn march to infamy as the tarnished but enduring prelate, Mahony wanted it this way. For $60 million, he has just disposed of all the outstanding claims post-1986 — when the archdiocese became self-insured — and pre-1954, when it wasn't insured at all. Conveniently, that takes care of the cases of abuse that happened on Mahony's 20-year watch. He still faces a choice of battling with insurance companies to pay off remaining pre-1986 claims or kissing off another half a billion or so of the church's money. But there's little doubt that the roughly 500 remaining claims will be tidied up in the coming years.

It's hard to see what evil lies in men, and what weakness brings them down, when the truth remains locked away. Church documents remain the Holy Grail that victims and their lawyers said they were looking for but will probably never see. Even if they do, the risk of consequences for Mahony and his hierarchy might have passed.

Someday, perhaps soon, the rest of the victims of clergy sex abuse and their lawyers will be left shaking their heads, glad the legal battle is over. Then the cardinal can finally rest as the man who kept his kingdom afloat but sacrificed the morality it was supposed to have been built on.

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