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Mahony on Web Site's List of 'Worst Bishops'

Scandal: Beliefnet.com, a popular religion outlet, places L.A. archbishop among nine leaders who it says handled sexual abuse cases poorly.

June 26, 2002|TERESA WATANABE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, was named Tuesday by a leading religion Web site as one of the nation's nine "worst bishops" in handling clergy sexual abuse cases.

Beliefnet.com said that despite Mahony's recent efforts to take a tough stand on reform, he had failed to promptly dismiss at least three priests who reportedly admitted to sexual abuse of minors. The Web site said plaintiffs have charged Mahony with "concealing information" from law enforcement officials on abuse allegations and it criticized the archdiocese's approach to victims as "potential litigants rather than wounded souls." Those developments and claims have been chronicled by The Times.

The respected site, which reaches nearly 5 million people a month, features news, features and commentary on a broad range of religious traditions. Columnists range from Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention to Catholic sociologist Andrew Greeley to Starhawk, a leader in goddess spirituality.

The site's posting on Mahony--based largely on its editors' interpretation of news media reports rather than independent research--comes two weeks after the nation's Roman Catholic bishops passed a tough "zero-tolerance" policy that calls for permanently ousting from public ministry all priests and deacons who sexually abuse minors. The leaders failed, however, to take substantive action to hold the American church's nearly 300 bishops accountable for failing to properly discipline predatory priests--an omission that has triggered discontent among many Catholics.

Archdiocese spokesman Tod Tamberg criticized the Web site for failing to contact the Los Angeles Archdiocese to verify the information on Mahony before posting the list. He said he was first contacted by Beliefnet at 2:45 p.m. Tuesday, nearly three hours after it had sent out a news release naming the nine bishops. Tamberg declined to say whether the report on Mahony was inaccurate, however.

"Beliefnet has done a great disservice to readers who look to it for reliable information, and to those in the church who are working diligently and compassionately to reach out to victims and to ensure that all of the ministries of the Catholic Church are safe, especially for our children and young people," Tamberg said.

He added that the cardinal had established a tough "zero-tolerance" policy against abusive priests, formed an independent clergy misconduct oversight board to review all allegations of sex abuse and was expanding "child-safe programs in all of our 287 schools and parishes."

Beliefnet Editor in Chief Steven Waldman said the list was compiled in an attempt to "put the spotlight on bishops who failed to solve the problem." He said he was "struck over the head" by the anger many bishops voiced during their recent national conference in Dallas against the minority of bishops who had mishandled cases, creating a crisis for the entire church.

"We've been hearing from all quarters about not just how horrible the crime of child abuse is, but how people are upset with the actions and inactions of the bishops," Waldman said.

Waldman said the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops did not return a call to comment on the list in advance of its posting this week. He added that he would promptly post any comments from bishops or other church authorities on the list.

In a poll posted Monday night by Beliefnet and ABC News, eight in 10 Americans--and seven in 10 Catholics--favored criminal charges against bishops who failed to act on abuse allegations. The poll, which surveyed 1,023 Americans, including 251 Catholics, also found dissatisfaction with the bishops' performance in Dallas.

Although 77% of Catholics believed the Dallas meeting would produce "meaningful improvements," only 44% said such progress had actually materialized. Only two in 10 of those surveyed--Catholics and non-Catholics alike--supported the bishops' policy to allow some offenders to stay in the priesthood, even with the harsh restrictions of stripping them of their Roman collar or right to celebrate Mass.

Aside from Mahony, the Web site named as "worst bishops": Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, Bishop Charles Grahmann of Dallas, Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien of Phoenix, Bishop John B. McCormack of New Hampshire, Archbishop Manuel Moreno of Tucson, Bishop Gerald Gettelfinger of Evansville, Ind., Bishop William Murphy of Rockville Centre, N.Y., and Bishop Elden Curtiss of Nebraska.

Beliefnet also cited three bishops for "exemplifying a positive approach to the crisis." They were Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh, who appealed to Rome when the Vatican refused to accept his request to defrock an abusive priest; Bishop John Kinney of St. Cloud, Minn.; and Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill., president of the bishops conference, who led the efforts in Dallas to adopt the tough reform policy.

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