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Chapel Dedicated for Victims of Sex Abuse

Ceremony at cathedral includes the news media. Critic of the church calls it a stunt.

May 26, 2003|Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writer

Within minutes of Cardinal Roger M. Mahony's taking the unusual step Sunday of establishing a chapel in the downtown Los Angeles cathedral to honor victims of sexual abuse by priests, the first names of some of the molested were entered in a special book by friends and family.

One page began to fill quickly:

"Pat."

"Amy."

"My Loved Ones W & S & K."

The chapel is one of 10 alcoves that line the halls in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels; another chapel, for example, is dedicated to church members who are serving in the military. The small soaring area devoted to sexual abuse victims includes a prayer table, candles to be lighted and a bulletin board where churchgoers can pin photos of priests' victims.

On the wall is a painting of farmers tending crops. In the middle of the field is a tree with a small boy standing in the branches. The words "truth shall spring out of the earth" are in one corner of the painting.

In the other are the words: "Justice shall look down from the heavens."

Mahony made the unexpected announcement of the dedication of the chapel during a morning Mass. "This past year, all of us read terrible stories of sexual abuse in the church," he said. "The stories filled us with anger, sadness and disappointment. It also filled us with resolve to do all that is humanly possible to eliminate the scourge of abuse from our church to ensure the safety of all of our people."

But the symbolic gesture of healing inflamed one woman who said she has been victimized by the church.

"A public relations stunt," fumed Mary Grant, regional director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, a group that says it represents about 400 victims of sex abuse by Catholic clergy in Southern California.

Shortly after Mahony knelt silently in the chapel in front of television cameras, Grant stood outside the church and lashed out at the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles for not inviting or telling victims of abuse about the ceremony.

Tod Tamberg, the Archdiocese spokesman, later said, "We didn't invite SNAP, nor did we invite the victims who have been asking [the Archdiocese] for a more spiritual component to the healing process. We simply wanted to designate the chapel and, through the media, let everyone know that it's there for them."

Tamberg said the idea for the chapel originated with victims who wanted a place within the cathedral for the healing process to begin.

Near the end of the Mass, Mahony read a one-page statement to the half-filled church explaining the idea for the chapel. After the service, he led a procession of clergy through the cathedral to the chapel. He blessed the space and then answered a few questions from reporters, saying, "We need to get this resolved."

Grant said she only learned of the blessing of the new chapel when she woke up and found a telephone message on her answering machine from a television reporter.

"Clearly this continues to be about the cardinal and not the victims," Grant said. "I think Cardinal Mahony knew that if victims were aware of this ahead of time, they'd be here telling parishioners that real change needs to happen -- and that the priests who abused them are not yet behind bars."

Some who visited the chapel after Mass said they were pleased that Mahony spoke to the issue of sex abuse.

"As a Catholic, it has been a painful experience," said Therese Sonnenfeld, 43, of Lake Forest, who was at the cathedral with her husband. "But this is good for the healing. It's a place to reach out."

"Clearly this is something that has been on the cardinal's mind," said Tony Ward, 45, of Burbank. "For him to address it to the congregation and speak openly about it benefits the congregation."

Nine retired or former priests from the diocese have been charged with crimes in Los Angeles County, and prosecutors want to see the personnel files on 31 other priests or church officials who they say are suspected of abuse.

Mahony has argued that he can't turn the files directly over to prosecutors because of privacy issues. As a result, the files have been subpoenaed by county prosecutors, and a judge is reviewing the files to see what information can be given to the county district attorney.

After the Mass, Joseph Melton, 68, of Fresno wrote in the book of victims' names "that Jesus forgive and heal each" priest who has abused a child or adult.

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