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Has the Cardinal Learned?

June 13, 2002

At the meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that begins today in Dallas, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony is expected to push for the approval of a "zero-tolerance" policy against child sexual abuse by priests. Mahony has put forth a lot of tough talk about zero tolerance. Before he can persuade his fellow bishops to make needed changes, he must first get his own archdiocesan house in order and make sure that actions match words.

Mahony can do that by ensuring that civil authorities are promptly notified of any and all cases of alleged sexual abuse of minors by priests in the archdiocese. This is what Mahony has said he stands for, by voice and in writing. Yet, the actions of the archdiocese often belie his words.

Just last week, the Los Angeles Police Department complained that it wasn't notified of an instance in which a priest was removed from ministry after allegations that he engaged in inappropriate conduct with a minor 28 years ago. Directly contradicting the policy stated by the cardinal, the archdiocese's spokesman, Tod Tamberg, said the church would first conduct an internal investigation to determine whether the accusations were credible. That's the job of the police.

If the archdiocese was counting on Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley to fail to act on his threat to go to the grand jury to shake loose information on abusive priests, it got a shock Wednesday. The grand jury issued subpoenas to the archdiocese for documents on three priests accused of child sexual abuse. Mahony said the archdiocese would comply with the subpoenas. That's a start, but Cooley must take the search for the facts all the way.

Mahony is one of several bishops who have been hit with justifiable criticism for the past transfer of priests after being informed that they sexually abused minors. He says he has learned from new research and greater awareness of the problem of pedophilia within the clerical ranks.

Let the lessons learned now be demonstrated. From the beginning of this scandal, the church deeply wounded its credibility, telling the faithful to do as it says, not as it does. The meeting in Dallas is an important opportunity for Mahony and other bishops to put consistent action behind all of the soothing words.

Forgiveness is certainly appropriate within a religious context. But sexual abuse of a child is a crime that demands criminal penalties--the first time and every time.

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