If anybody on God's green and just Earth deserves a great big "I told you so," it's a 40-year-old Los Angeles medical assistant named Rita Milla.
Eighteen years ago, she sued Los Angeles' Roman Catholic Archdiocese and seven of its priests. As a girl of 16, she said, she had been seduced by the seven, impregnated and sent off by the priests to their home country, the Philippines, to have the baby in secret.
There were lewd jokes aplenty then, about Snow White and the Seven Priests, and the Philippines' top prelate, who really was named Cardinal Sin ("Forgive me, Sin, for I have fathered").
People wrote off Rita as an unbalanced young woman dwelling in fantasy. A bishop said publicly that she had "a bad reputation." She sued him for slander. A colleague and I who reported Rita's story were scolded from the pulpit by then-Cardinal Timothy Manning. Rita's suit was dismissed because it was filed too late, and because of the archdiocese's claim that it wasn't responsible for its priests' misbehavior. The priests themselves had conveniently vanished. End of story.
Seven years later, my phone rang. A feeble voice: "Patt? This is Father Tamayo." He was dying and wanted the truth known, and the truth was, Rita was right. There was more: letters on archdiocese letterhead, sent to Tamayo in the Philippines, where the priests had gone to ground. In a letter written by a church official and CCed to Manning, Tamayo was advised not to reveal he was being paid by the archdiocese unless questioned under oath. A salary check for $375 was enclosed.
And when Tamayo asked to return to L.A., another letter advised him to stay put. When he came back anyway, yet another letter told him that "there has been no change in the situation" which could "open old wounds and further hurt anyone concerned, including the Archdiocese."
The day my story ran, Tamayo apologized publicly to Rita in the conference room of Gloria Allred's law office. It was a brief, local story and nothing more.
Now this week, in the very same conference room, Allred and Rita and that baby, now a 19-year-old named Jacqueline, asked Cardinal Roger M. Mahony to help the girl find out which priest was her father. This time, I counted a score of reporters and 14 news cameras. Why now? Why not then?
The difference is that now there's a critical mass--scores of lawsuits, hundreds of victims, men and boys and their families--and a critical press covering a nationwide scandal about dozens of sexual abuse charges, not just one forlorn girl.
So these things snowball. A month ago, I wrote a column about a man who picketed the Gardena parochial school where he says he was molested as a boy, and I mentioned Rita Milla's case. A CBS News producer named Barbara Pierce contacted me about Rita, interviewed her and put her story on the air. Then, the letters Tamayo showed me were cited in a priest-sex abuse lawsuit filed 10 days ago ... all of which brought us this week to the cream-colored conference table in Allred's offices.
And this time, nobody was making any jokes. No one is singling out the Catholic Church any more than Enron or Arthur Andersen was singled out. In every case, people's trust was betrayed. An institution entrusted with people's souls is no more exempt than an institution entrusted with people's money--perhaps less so.
It's not only that priests evidently molested adolescents; it's that their superiors sometimes knew, and moved priests around in a shell game to protect priests and church--at the same time the church argued, as it did in L.A., that it wasn't liable for priests' misdeeds.
That doesn't wash. Fortune 500 companies and lesser corporate fish with policies against, say, sexual harassment, still have found themselves writing big checks and making amends when their employees violate those codes, sometimes repeatedly.
The civil version of federal racketeering charges, RICO, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations law, was part of the recent lawsuit against the archdiocese. That puts the church in the undistinguished RICO company of junk bond kings, mobsters, even the Orange County bankruptcy.
That suit says Mahony was in the loop, practicing "a pattern of concealment, deception," promising to get rid of a problem priest but doing nothing for years
In Rita's case, Mahony became archbishop the year after her lawsuit was filed and he was sent a copy of the letter urging Tamayo to go back to the Philippines.
In Enron, in Arthur Andersen, it's the big guys who have to answer the big questions, and so they should here.
The story is that Congress named the RICO law after Edward G. Robinson's mobster character in "Little Caesar," who, as he is gunned down in the street, wails, "Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Rico?"
Mother of Mercy, we can certainly hope so.
Patt Morrison's columns appear Mondays and Wednesdays. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org