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Ethnicity Colors Views of Scandal

Church: For some lay Catholics, allegations against priests signal a huge shift. Others say they have seen worse.

June 10, 2002|TERESA WATANABE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mary Ellen Burton-Christie is angry about the way Roman Catholic leaders have handled the church's sex scandals, and she used her weekly offering Sunday to express her displeasure: She wrote "parish only" on her check, withholding her money from the Los Angeles Archdiocese in an attempt to spark change in the church hierarchy.

Salvador Hernandez said he was saddened, not angered, by the scandals and would not take it out on the archdiocese. Instead, he helped organize a massive rally Saturday that drew hundreds of Latino Catholics into downtown Los Angeles streets singing hymns and waving signs proclaiming support for their faith, their priests, the abuse victims and Cardinal Roger M. Mahony.

Burton-Christie, who is white, and Hernandez, a Latino, are faithful Catholics who express deep love for their church and distress over its woes. But their responses underscore dramatic differences in how the archdiocese's 5 million Catholics are reacting to the crisis. These differences are often visible through three prisms: whites versus Latinos, immigrants versus U.S. natives, and the affluent versus the working class.

Catholics in some largely white, affluent congregations report moves in their churches to withhold offerings, boycott Mass, demand more lay input in selecting priests and other attempts at change. Many describe themselves as part of an awakened laity that is demanding equal status with clergy, rather than being "spoon-fed" church policy.

"This may mark another seismic shift in the rise of the laity," said Claire Henning, pastoral coordinator for St. Paul the Apostle Church in Los Angeles. She likened the moment to 1968, when American Catholics widely rejected church teachings by disregarding a new papal encyclical that reaffirmed the church's ban on artificial birth control.

At St. Paul the Apostle, which Henning said has sponsored three forums on priestly abuse in the last few months, the most significant outcome so far has been the outpouring of conversation about the need to challenge church hierarchy on everything from financial accountability to rules barring married priests and women clergy. Contributions have dipped 3% to 4%, she said. Lay leaders in other churches report cuts as deep as 20%, along with demands to allocate money to the parish and not the archdiocesan hierarchy, or to nuns and not priests.

Burton-Christie, a parish council member at St. Agatha Church in Los Angeles, said she began to withhold her Sunday offerings from the archdiocese--which takes out 8% of parish collections--because "it's one of the few tools I have to get my message across."

She envisions a church in which leaders such as Mahony start treating the laity as "equal brothers and sisters." She said she is perturbed that Mahony has written at least two letters on the scandal to "my brother priests," leaving out the laity. Partly in response, she is drafting a letter inviting Mahony to embrace the laity as well by appearing for a discussion on the issue at St. Agatha.

"If Mahony came to a meeting and sat with the people and apologized to the people, it would be transformative in our relationship with the hierarchy in the church," said Burton-Christie, a longtime community organizer and spiritual director who, like Henning, is pursuing a master's degree in pastoral studies at Loyola Marymount University.

At St. Agatha, a small group of parishioners has started boycotting Masses. But Burton-Christie said widespread goodwill has also been voiced, along with an eagerness to engage the church hierarchy in moves to make the church more open, accountable and faithful.

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Rallies and Vigils

Among Latinos, who make up 70% of the Catholics in the Los Angeles Archdiocese, the general response seems strikingly different. Since the scandal broke in January, the community has held rallies, marches and vigils in support of the church--including Saturday's march sponsored by the evangelical Latino organization El Sembrador.

Latino priests in immigrant and Americanized churches say they have seen no moves to withhold contributions, boycott Mass or demand engagement with church leaders on issues such as celibacy or women's ordination. At the march, several Latinos said they were saddened and disappointed by the scandals, but they did not voice anger.

And although many supported the idea of zero tolerance--ousting from the priesthood anyone found to have abused minors--not one focused blame for the problem on the church hierarchy, pointing instead to wayward individual priests.

Gus Govea, a 39-year-old Mexican native and foreman at a Southgate floor-mat firm, said he did not know why church authorities handled the problem as they did, and "those who don't know shouldn't talk."

"They have their motives," he said. "Although I can't support the priests who molested the children, it's not right to judge or point fingers.

"I don't follow the priests," he said. "I follow Jesus Christ. I don't follow man because men are not perfect."

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