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L.A.-area priests try to make sense of a tumultuous week

On Sunday, priests and their parishioners reacted to recent developments in the sex abuse scandal with varying degrees of anger, forgiveness, relief and uncertainty.

February 03, 2013|By Matt Stevens, Hailey Branson-Potts and Laura J. Nelson, Los Angeles Times
  • Msgr. Robert J. Gallagher greets parishioners after Mass at St. Charles Borromeo Church in North Hollywood. During the homily, he read a letter from Archbishop Jose Gomez about Cardinal Roger M. Mahony and his role in the cover-up of the priest sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church.
Msgr. Robert J. Gallagher greets parishioners after Mass at St. Charles… (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)

Msgr. Robert J. Gallagher stood before parishioners at St. Charles Borromeo Church on Sunday, searching for the right words to reassure them after a tumultuous week that saw the release of previously secret personnel files on priests who molested children, the public rebuke of Cardinal Roger M. Mahony and the resignation of a Santa Barbara bishop.

"Everybody has to face sin and God's grace in their own life," Gallagher told members of the North Hollywood parish that Mahony has called home since he retired two years ago. "And we do it as a community when we try to bring things into the light."

Mahony was not present as Gallagher acknowledged parishioners' range of emotions since Thursday, when the files were released and Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez relieved the cardinal of all public duties and announced that Auxiliary Bishop Thomas J. Curry had stepped down.

"I'm sure some of you are still mightily angry, some confused, some would like to see something done differently," Gallagher said. "The important thing for us to remember, I think, is that there have been victims ... young people whose lives were ruined.... They need a sense that they are being invited back into God's grace."

On Sunday, as reporters and TV trucks descended on their services, priests throughout Los Angeles tried to make sense of recent events three days after church officials complied with a judge's order to make public 122 files on priests accused of molesting children.

Some of the records spelled out in Mahony's and Curry's own words how the church hierarchy plotted to keep police from learning about the crimes.

In a letter released as thousands of pages of the files were posted to the archdiocese website, Gomez said the behavior they described was "terribly sad and evil" — and inexcusable. Gomez's letter was read aloud Sunday at Masses, where many welcomed his actions.

"I take my hat off to Gomez. He got on the ball and did what needed to be done, and I commend him for it," said Eric Nielsen, 52, a Valley Village resident who has attended St. Charles Borromeo since 1981 but is considering moving to another congregation.

At Holy Family Church in South Pasadena, Msgr. Clement Connolly told parishioners that "this is a terrible day, but this is a good day."

"We are standing, finally, in a place of truth," he said, recalling that a decade earlier he feared an "institutional malignancy" as he stood before them.

"Any malignancy that is not addressed becomes invasive, becomes the norm," he said. "It shapes the culture of the church. It shapes decision-making."

A standing-room-only crowd applauded as Connolly finished his homily.

Jennifer Rockenback of Los Angeles had come with her husband and two children, hoping Connolly could make sense of what she called "a terrible, terrible thing."

"There really aren't words," she said.

In a bit of awkward timing, the release of the files came just two days before the archdiocese kicked off its annual fundraising campaign, Together in Mission. The appeal, which Mahony began two decades ago, raises money for schools and parishes in poorer neighborhoods.

Last year it brought in more than $17 million for 35 parishes and 52 schools. It was unclear if the recent tumult would have much effect on giving. Some churchgoers, including Rockenback, said it would not affect their contributions; others said it would.

The priest files date back to the 1940s and reveal new details about the scope of child sexual abuse in the church — and how leaders handled it. Among other things, the files show, Mahony and Curry gave out-of-state assignments to priests they knew had molested children and kept abusers from seeing therapists who might alert authorities.

Before Gomez's action, Mahony had weathered three grand jury investigations and numerous calls for his resignation, staying in office until the Vatican's mandatory retirement age of 75. No one in the church hierarchy has been charged.

In an open letter to Gomez on Friday, Mahony said he tried his best to deal with the priest molestation scandal but fell short because too little was known about the problem early in his career. He also said he instituted state-of-the-art protections against child sexual abuse in the archdiocese.

On Sunday, priests and their parishioners greeted recent developments with varying measures of anger, forgiveness, relief and uncertainty.

At St. Monica Catholic Church, many were upset with Mahony.

Norma Esperida-Cummins, a 63-year-old retiree, said her eye has been drawn lately to a photo in her home of Mahony presiding at her daughter's confirmation years ago.

"I've been thinking about taking it down," she said. "I can't look at it."

Parishioner Betsy Emanuel said she read Mahony's letter to Gomez and thinks he is in denial.

"I think what happened is really disgusting," she said.

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