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No absolution yet

A $660-million payout to victims of clergy abuse in L.A. is a start, but open disclosure is still needed.

July 17, 2007

EARLIER THIS YEAR, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote that "the church pays an immeasurable price for failures to protect children." But in one sense the cost of the church's past sins of omission and commission is all too easily measured. For the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the price tag of a "global settlement" with victims of sexual abuse is $660 million.

In this case, money does talk -- and what it says is something the American church in general and this archdiocese in particular were scandalously slow to acknowledge: that, for decades, wolves in shepherds' clothing took advantage of the most innocent members of their flock. They were enabled by bishops who looked the other way or naively trusted that sexual predators could be rehabilitated or given "safe" assignments.

In announcing the settlement, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony offered "my personal apology to every victim who has suffered sexual abuse by a priest, religious, deacon or layperson in this archdiocese." We have no doubt that the apology was a heartfelt one. But the cardinal also bears responsibility for his excessively defensive legal strategy. As recently as last year, the L.A. Archdiocese was asking the U.S. Supreme Court -- unsuccessfully -- to rule that it had a 1st Amendment right not to provide the personnel files of two accused priests to a grand jury.

Now the archdiocese is taking a more conciliatory position. Under the settlement approved Monday by a Superior Court judge, the public as well as victims may at last receive a fuller picture of what the church did and didn't know about predatory priests. The archdiocese, and individual priests, can continue to challenge the release of particular files (such as psychiatric records, which Mahony notes are privileged under state law). But we hope that the objections will be few and that the arbitrator who will rule on them, retired California Supreme Court Justice Edward Panelli, will err on the side of disclosure.

Perhaps Panelli will need to safeguard the privacy of victims and other third parties. But no such deference is owed to priests, living or dead, against whom credible accusations of abuse were lodged. Nor may the process of vetting material be used to hide evidence that would clarify the church hierarchy's role in covering up these vile offenses.

Like his brother bishops, Mahony has been moved by conversations with victims of abusive clergy and now laments that "there is no way to go back and give [victims] that innocence that was taken from them." He also points out -- fairly -- that, in step with the national church, the archdiocese now takes elaborate measures to prevent abuse by clergy and church workers and to report it to law enforcement when it does occur. This is a sea change in the church's attitude.

Unfortunately, as Mahony recognizes, it comes too late for the victims. And it will be credible with men and women in the pews only if the church in Los Angeles and elsewhere owns up in the most forthright way possible to the sins of the past.

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