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The cost of scandal

The Catholic Church's divestiture to pay for abuse settlements means good works will go undone.

September 11, 2007

Obviously, the principal victims of abuse by the Catholic clergy are the members of the faithful, many of them children, who were betrayed by wolves in shepherds' clothing. But the civil lawsuits that have provided those victims with a measure of compensation also create collateral damage, even when steps are taken to protect core church activities.

Insurance policies provide the church with only some of the resources it needs to settle these claims. The Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego, which on Friday agreed to pay nearly $200 million to victims of sexually abusive priests and church workers, said it will defray much of the rest of the costs through loans and the sale of assets. A diocesan official said there were no plans to close parishes or schools, but Bishop Robert Brom conceded that there will be "some damaging consequences for the mission of the church in this diocese."

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which has agreed to pay $764 million to victims of abuse, has engaged in similar damage control, saying it will sell off non-parish property, including its administrative headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard. But an affecting article last week by Times staff writer Rebecca Trounson demonstrated that sales of "assets" can have human consequences.

As part of its divestiture to pay for abuse settlements, the archdiocese is selling a property in Santa Barbara that has served as a convent for the Sisters of Bethany since it was built in 1952. The decision means the displacement of three nuns who have been living rent-free in the house while ministering to local immigrants. One of the nuns, Sister Angela Escalera, has lived at the convent for 43 years.

The nuns in Santa Barbara and the people they serve won't be the only human beings affected by these financial constraints. The ripple effect inevitably includes those who would have benefited from different uses of the church's holdings -- or from the generosity of parishioners who have withheld contributions (or stopped coming to church) because of the scandal.

The impoverishment of the church compounds the tragedy defined by damaged lives, disillusioned believers and blameless priests who now must minister under a cloud of suspicion created by their faithless colleagues. But the blame for this state of affairs belongs not to the victims or their lawyers but to an ecclesiastical culture that embraced the false gospel of "least said, soonest mended."

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