Doing Penance
Catholic Church Officials Must Be Held Accountable for Sex-Abuse Scandal

Los Angeles Daily News [Los Angeles CA]
Downloaded February 21, 2004

"Apologies are vital and necessary," says Cardinal Roger Mahony, "but of themselves, are insufficient."

He's absolutely right -- and that's his problem, as well as that of the church in grappling with the child-molestation scandal.

Mahony's release of the 211 names of priests and other Catholic Church personnel accused of molesting children in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles amounts, in the end, to not much more than an apology -- one of many over the past few years.

Publishing the names might help speed the wheels of justice for the alleged offenders, but it does nothing to exact justice for their enablers. Those in the church hierarchy who, either through inexcusable naivete or an outrageous sense of self-protection, turned a blind eye to the abuse in their midst must also be held accountable.

And publishing a list of names won't do that.

Nor will any of the other measures Mahony has publicly taken, such as adopting "zero-tolerance" guidelines or ferreting known abusers out of active ministry, constructive though those steps are.

The Catholic Church, in Los Angeles and throughout the country, suffers from an awful credibility problem, the root of which is that -- outside of the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law in Boston -- none of the leaders who allowed rampant abuse under their watch has suffered any meaningful repercussions for their dereliction of responsibility.

Mahony and others have apologized repeatedly, both through word and deed, demonstrating some degree of contrition through their efforts to end the secrecy and reform their oversight policies.

But while the apologies might be genuine, and for some they surely bring a small measure of relief, they won't do much to heal the wounds that decades of unchecked abuse have caused.

That's because the apologies ultimately fall flat. They seem scripted. When someone is caught red-handed, it's hard to believe that person's profession of regret is a real attempt to make amends, and not just an effort to save his or her skin.

Regaining a lost trust is not easy, and there are no obvious solutions.

It doesn't help that Mahony is unwilling to share archdiocesan personnel records with the District Attorney's Office. Legally, he might have good reason for that decision -- disclosing psychological reports, for example, could violate some innocent priests' privacy rights and invite defamation lawsuits. But as a matter of public relations, even the slightest hint of secrecy damages his best attempts to come clean.

The cardinal's mea culpas and efforts to punish offending priests are fine as far as they go, but they won't satisfy the public's desire for justice, nor will they restore the church's credibility.

For that, church officials, if not in the United States, then in Rome, must publicly see to it that everyone responsible for decades of outrageous scandal is held accountable -- not just the offending priests, but those charged with their selection, formation and oversight, too.

Because, as Mahony himself has recognized, apologies simply aren't enough.


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