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Etching abuse in church's memory

The few monuments that exist -- a 'healing garden,' an engraved millstone -- unsettle victims and Catholic officials alike.

December 01, 2008|Maria L. La Ganga and Duke Helfand | LaGanga and Helfand are Times staff writers.

LOS ANGELES AND OAKLAND — Oakland's new Cathedral of Christ the Light stretches skyward, sheathed in gleaming glass that reveals a delicate skeleton of wood and steel.

Terrie Light has spent more than three years thinking about the elegant structure. She has attended more meetings than she can count about the $190-million cathedral complex while helping to design its most famous garden.

But the 57-year-old has no plans to be a regular visitor to the shadowy corner, with its privet hedges, curved wooden benches and somber dedication: "To those innocents sexually abused by members of the clergy. We remember, and we affirm: Never again."

Light was molested by a priest in the Diocese of Oakland half a century ago. Although being around churches stirs painful memories, she hopes the tribute "might provide solace" to survivors and their family members.

But as she discovered, "what it actually ended up doing was make a lot of people mad."

The survivors had originally envisioned a far different tribute, a big, splashy garden filled with flowers and fountains. What they got after much heated debate was small, simple, downright austere.

Then there were fights over the inscription, Light said, such as the diocese's resistance to the engraved words "clergy abuse." The very existence of such a monument leaves a lot of people "unsettled."

The scandal "is not a thing that's fixed," Light said. "There are so many Catholics who don't want to believe this happened or the extent of it. . . . Other people need to be reminded. Not me."

The "healing garden" was dedicated this fall, the latest in a small sprinkling of tributes to victims of clergy sexual abuse nationwide, controversial monuments that raise more questions than they can possibly answer.

What is the proper way to remember the thousands of victims? What do the tributes accomplish? Are they enough? Why aren't there more?

Cases of clergy sexual abuse have been reported in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. More than 5,000 priests in the U.S. have been accused. The Catholic Church in the U.S. has paid out more than $2 billion in legal settlements. Six dioceses have filed for bankruptcy.

But there are believed to be fewer than half a dozen monuments across the country, according to survivor advocates.

"A lot of churches and groups want to be attentive to the needs of victims. They don't want to forget and don't want bad things to happen again," said Thomas Plante, a psychologist who has written about clergy sexual abuse. "But some rank-and-file Catholics want to move on," said Plante, a professor at Santa Clara University. "You hear a bit of both. It's tough. I don't know how you resolve some of those conflicts."

The dearth of monuments also reflects a more general Catholic architectural aesthetic that favors altars and stained glass ahead of tributes.

"If you look in Catholic churches, you don't tend to see a lot of memorials," said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest and senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.

The ultimate aim, Reese and other theologians say, should be to create "living memorials" -- dialogues that can repair frayed relationships better than a static monument.

"It reminds us that we have to do better," Reese said. "That's what church is all about. You don't cover these things up. You face them. You expose them. And try and work toward some kind of healing."

The clergy sex abuse scandal erupted in Boston in 2002. When Pope Benedict XVI met with several victims during his trip to the United States in April, the pope said he was "deeply ashamed" of what happened. Litigation is ongoing. And that creates a tension of its own.

"The challenge is, how do you deal with the unsettled in permanent form?" said Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum. "Giving it form while it's fluid is a very interesting task. Holocaust memorials often took decades."

The first victim tribute to appear -- and later disappear -- was in a small chapel in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles.

Adorned with candles, a bulletin board for photographs and a book to inscribe the names of victims, the temporary commemoration was "designated" by Cardinal Roger Mahony on May 25, 2003, four years before the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles agreed to a $660-million settlement with 508 victims.

Mahony made the announcement about the chapel at Sunday Mass. He blessed the space and knelt silently as television cameras recorded the scene. Victims were enraged that they weren't invited; one called Mahony's gesture "a public relations stunt."

A week after the opening, victims attempted to install a life-size wooden cross decorated with snapshots of boys and girls who had been sexually abused by priests. Cathedral security initially blocked the group from entering, then stepped aside.

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