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Rip the Veil of Secrecy

March 27, 2002

After a prolonged and troubling silence, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony on Monday accepted responsibility and apologized for the sins of the small minority of priests that has brought shame to the Los Angeles Archdiocese. At an extraordinary "Mass of reparations," the cardinal said from now on the archdiocese will cooperate fully with law enforcement when parishioners allege sexual abuse. But in adding that he will not give police the names of priests accused of past sexual crimes, he asks society to take an unacceptable leap of faith.

When did the alleged abuse occur? Who stands accused? Are these priests even now abusing teenagers and other children? Civil, not religious, authorities need to answer these questions. Soon.

Meanwhile, the scandals grow wider and uglier. Week by week across the nation, new allegations of abuse against children leak out, and last weekend Times staff writer Glenn F. Bunting reported that a monk and a priest at a Jesuit retreat in Los Gatos had for at least five years sexually abused two mentally disabled men.

The Catholic Church is not by any means the only church in which some clerics have abused their power and injured those they should be comforting and protecting. But the institution stands alone for having so spectacularly botched its handling of the decades-old problem.

We encourage Catholic leaders to put aside sectarian pride and learn from the Episcopalians, who have taken a much more aggressive approach to sexual abuse by the clergy. The key is openness. If a parishioner makes a credible charge of abuse against an Episcopal priest, that church, under a written policy, passes the information on to the congregation.

In contrast, the Catholic Church, faced with what may be its gravest crisis in modern history, has followed the bad example set by large corporations that keep information about dangerous products secret by demanding confidentiality agreements in their legal settlements.

On Monday Mahony said he would support victims of past sexual abuse who want to break such legal deals and talk. We encourage victims of abuse to do so and to cooperate fully with civil authorities to make sure that bad priests don't harm others.

Slowly, belatedly, the Catholic Church is getting the message. Modern seminaries now work not just to shape incoming priests' spirituality but to bolster their emotional maturity and give them a clear sense of social responsibility. To fully redeem itself, however, the church must turn over to prosecutors the name of every cleric accused of abuse and leave it to civil authorities to decide whether more investigation is warranted. The wall separating church and state was never meant to be a veil of secrecy to protect criminals.

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