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  Home :: 2006 December :: Settling to hide the truth

Settling to hide the truth

Roger Mahony spent millions and kept details of clergy sex abuse secret, but what was the real cost of the deal?
By Jeffrey Anderson, JEFFREY ANDERSON is a staff writer at the L.A. Weekly.
December 5, 2006

THE $60-MILLION settlement announced last week between 45 molestationvictims and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles is a brutal reminder thatmoral crisis cannot be cured through legal compromise.

Inthose cases, and the hundreds more yet to be settled, victims want thetruth to come out about abusive priests; they also want theperpetrators and those who harbored them, including Cardinal RogerMahony and his hierarchy, to face consequences.

Mahony, for his part, wants to put the whole mess behind him and shieldfrom public view any documents that could provide the truth — whilealso preserving the finances of his archdiocese.

Buthere's what is wrong with the mediation approach both sides agreed to:It leads to compromise but not reconciliation. No one can move beyondthe past if they don't know what truly happened. No one can preventrelapse without fully understanding what, or who, led to the problem.Now Mahony and his flock of 4.3 million risk the return of a cancerthat has stricken the church and eroded its leaders' moral authority. 
Four years ago, the Boston archdiocese set the standard for a catharticend to scandal. Clergy abuse victims and their lawyers went into courtand forced the archdiocese to turn over documents that showed in vividdetail the complicity of Cardinal Bernard Law and his hierarchy inshielding pedophile priests and transferring them to other parishes,where they molested again. The revelations were stunning and led toLaw's resignation.

Mahonyand his fellow church officials took note and took steps to ensure thatno such revelations would occur here. Victims' lawyers in Los Angelesplayed right into the cardinal's hand by lobbying for a change in thelaw that allowed hundreds of older claims to be heard. The number ofcases was so great that the courts devised a consolidated plan thatforced the entire scandal into private mediation for more than twoyears. With this settlement, these 45 cases will never see a courtroom,where the discovery process might have cracked open Mahony's files.

Plaintiffs'continuing demands that these files be released was the major stumblingblock for years. This settlement sets that issue to one side and lets aretired judge decide what the church can keep secret. Victims' lawyerseven bargained away their right to appeal. Most likely, this judge willrule the same way another did in a case against the Diocese of Orangelast year, unsealing only files about priests who were dead or who hadno objections.

No documents, no truth, no closure — for anyone.

Churchlawyers argued — and probably still believe — that what happened inBoston was no panacea. Parishes closed; enrollment in the priesthooddropped. The new cardinal faces controversy all the time. But no one inBoston is still speculating about who knew what when, as CatholicAngelenos will be for years to come.

Is this justice? For thosewho carried their scarred youths into court, seeking an end to years ofanguish? Or for loyal Catholics who still wonder whether their parishesor schools will close?

Mahony dug in his heels like the chiefexecutive of an oil company accused of a massive spill. The onlydifference is that shareholders in a private corporation have theoption of dumping stock if its value sinks. The dividend that membersof an organized religion seek is not so easy to give up on.

Likea clever executive who is looking at either retirement (to a cushy postat the Vatican) or a stubborn march to infamy as the tarnished butenduring prelate, Mahony wanted it this way. For $60 million, he hasjust disposed of all the outstanding claims post-1986 — when thearchdiocese became self-insured — and pre-1954, when it wasn't insuredat all. Conveniently, that takes care of the cases of abuse thathappened on Mahony's 20-year watch. He still faces a choice of battlingwith insurance companies to pay off remaining pre-1986 claims orkissing off another half a billion or so of the church's money. Butthere's little doubt that the roughly 500 remaining claims will betidied up in the coming years.

It's hard to see what evil liesin men, and what weakness brings them down, when the truth remainslocked away. Church documents remain the Holy Grail that victims andtheir lawyers said they were looking for but will probably never see.Even if they do, the risk of consequences for Mahony and his hierarchymight have passed.

Someday, perhaps soon, the rest of thevictims of clergy sex abuse and their lawyers will be left shakingtheir heads, glad the legal battle is over. Then the cardinal canfinally rest as the man who kept his kingdom afloat but sacrificed themorality it was supposed to have been built on.

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Pedophilia and sexual abuse of children in Australia