THE $660 MILLION settlement of lawsuits over sexual abuse by priests in Los Angeles breaks a dubious record for the Catholic Church in the United States. The agreement keeps Cardinal Roger Mahony from testifying at a trial -- but ought to prompt him to consider whether the needs of the Los Angeles Archdiocese would be best served by his resignation.
Mahony is a contemporary of Cardinal Bernard Law, who was forced into comfortable exile in Rome 4 1/2 years ago by the exploding scandal in Boston. Law's resignation came because of public outrage over his cover-up of sexual abuse by priests, as detailed by articles in the Globe and backed up by confidential church personnel files that a court forced the Boston Archdiocese to make public. Once a California court ruled last month that the Catholic Church in the state had to release its confidential files about any priest accused of abuse, a settlement in the Los Angeles lawsuits became inevitable.
Mahony has managed to survive in office even though evidence has dribbled out in lawsuits to suggest that he, like Law, shifted priests quietly into different parishes after people had come forward to accuse them. Because not all the files are available yet, the full extent of his involvement is not known.
Archbishop of Los Angeles since 1985, Mahony, at 71, is four years shy of the mandatory retirement deadline for bishops. Unless his personnel policies were significantly different from Boston's, his final years in office will be painful for himself and the archdiocese.
When the national scandal was at its height in 2002, Mahony made noises about addressing mandatory celibacy for priests. This came as some comfort to critics who say that the celibacy policy contributed to a culture of denial and repression in which abusers thrived. Whatever his views on celibacy, though, his actions as supervisor of hundreds of priests are most relevant to his future.
Much of the settlement will be paid by insurance companies and Catholic religious orders, but $250 million will come directly from the archdiocese. Even this amount exceeds the total $133 million paid out in Boston, previously the highest amount. The Los Angeles and Boston money could have been spent on other important projects if Mahony and Law had adopted a zero-tolerance policy against abuse when it first became a national issue for the church in the mid-1980s.
Catholic dioceses across the nation, including Los Angeles, have initiated thorough policies to prevent future abuse, and Mahony apologiz ed to the victims on Sunday. Yet new policies and regrets aren't enough. In the eyes of victims, the scandal will never be fully resolved as long as bishops who put the interests of their fellow priests over the protection of children remain in positions of leadership.