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More Than Acts of Contrition

May 26, 2005

Sometimes, saying "I'm sorry" isn't nearly enough. The release last week of papers revealing that church leaders in Orange County concealed, denied and enabled sexual molestation by priests for decades neither brings the matter to psychological closure nor speeds healing. Instead, it should spur some church leaders to step down, while forcing others -- most notably, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony -- to finally disclose the church's complicity in the scandal.

Bishop Michael P. Driscoll, formerly a diocesan official in Orange County and now the bishop of Boise, Idaho, posted a preemptive apology on his website before the release of the papers. As The Times reported Wednesday, disagreement about whether he is redeemed or should resign has given Catholics one more thing to be divided about. In either case, church officials will have to do much more to help heal the community -- and they should start by releasing all documents related to the abuse cases.

The 10,000 pages of documents released by the diocese confirmed critics' worst suspicions. Bishop of Orange Tod D. Brown has been more forthright about the scandal than many of his colleagues (although it should be pointed out that these papers were released to comply with a court settlement). Mahony, in contrast, has waged an unseemly struggle to keep key personnel records from the grand jury and plaintiffs' lawyers.

Whether this settlement will encourage more disclosure, however, remains an open question. Ironically, it may bring some church leaders to support mediation because that generally allows for greater confidentiality (files for only about a third of those accused of abuse in Orange County were released). Many alleged victims and their families, meanwhile, may opt for litigation.

Some of the church officials who failed to protect children have left Orange County, but that should not shield them from scrutiny and possible removal from office. Most prominent is Driscoll, who reviewed molestation cases in the county both before and after he became an auxiliary bishop in 1990. Among other misdeeds, he accepted into the diocese an out-of-state priest after being told the man had a "moral problem"; later, the priest allegedly molested nine boys. Driscoll also transferred a serial pedophile to Tijuana and sought to protect another accused priest from prosecution by sending him outside U.S. jurisdiction.

The new pope is unlikely to bring more transparency to the issue. Three years ago, he said the whole scandal was a "planned campaign" by the news media to discredit the church. All the more reason why detailed disclosure is necessary, and why it may be up to local church leaders -- and the local church faithful -- to make it happen.

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