THE CATHOLIC Church can’t get to a bright, new future until it finally breaks with the ugliness of the past.
One way to make such a break would be to keep Cardinal Roger Mahony from participating in the next election to determine a new pope.
If past is prologue, as Shakespeare wrote, keeping Mahony away from the upcoming conclave seems unlikely. Church leaders, from the pope down, never understood the depth of outrage over the long-running clergy sexual abuse scandal. Apology, not accountability, was supposed to quiet the rebellious.
But the scenario involving Mahony — the retired archbishop of Los Angeles — has its own distinction. Two weeks ago, Mahony was relieved of all public duties by current Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez. What The New York Times called “an extraordinary moment in Catholic Church history” occurred after long-sought documents revealed that Mahony actively worked to protect priests who were abusing children from police, rather than protect victims from their abusers.
Some 12,000 pages of records revealed that Mahony covered up hundreds of allegations of clerical abuse in the 1980s. Given the revelations of the past decade, that is not news; that is part of a pattern. But Gomez’s bluntness in confronting it is different. As he wrote to parishioners, “The behavior described in these files is terribly sad and evil. There is no excuse, no explaining away what happened to these children.”
Despite those sentiments, Mahony remains a “bishop in good standing.” And after the surprise resignation announcement from Pope Benedict XVI, Mahony rushed to put out word that he intends to participate in choosing a successor.
Blogged Mahony, who is one of 11 US cardinals who will vote for the next pope: “I look forward to traveling to Rome soon to help thank Pope Benedict XVI for his gifted service to the church and to participate in the Conclave to elect his successor.”
This blindness of the Catholic hierarchy to the need for personal accountability is an old, sad story. Boston knows it well.
In December 2002, Cardinal Bernard Law resigned as archbishop of Boston, after the Globe exposed conduct similar to that of Mahony. Instead of protecting the abused, Law, like Mahony, protected priests accused of child abuse. After leaving Boston in disgrace, he relocated to Rome. There, he became Archpriest of the Basilica St. Mary Major, a position he held until November 2011.
Despite protests from abuse survivor networks, Law participated in the 2005 papal conclave. At 81, he is now ineligible to vote in the conclave that will name Benedict’s successor. But according to the National Catholic Reporter, he was present at the pope’s general audience on Feb. 13 and at the Ash Wednesday Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica.
In other words, he remains in great standing in Rome, no matter what the folks back home think of him. And Mahony can probably expect similar backing.
Still, in Los Angeles, local members of Catholics United, a liberal-leaning Catholic grassroots organization, have organized a petition drive asking Mahony to respect the victims of abuse that occurred under his watch and recuse himself from the papal conclave.
“We think we have a chance of convincing Cardinal Mahony to do the right thing by staying home,’’ said James Salt, executive director of the national Catholics United organization, based in Washington. The reprimand of Mahoney by his successor, said Salt, “speaks volumes to the scandal and hurt Cardinal Mahony caused.”
In the past, scandal and hurt have not been enough to make Rome cut ties with disgraced leaders. That is the sad story of the Catholic Church since the cycle of clergy sexual abuse was first exposed. There are apologies and new policies to protect against future abuse. But Rome remained willing to keep protectors of abusers in the fold. And that is a big obstacle to a revived church.
One challenge for the church hierarchy involves reaching out to a new generation that rejects the church’s position on abortion, contraception, married priests, and gay marriage. An equal challenge involves rebuilding bridges to a base disaffected by the mishandling of the clergy abuse scandal.
But the Catholic Church either doesn’t get that — or just doesn’t care.