After rebuke by archbishop, Cardinal Mahony takes higher profile
Stripped of public duties by Archbishop Jose Gomez over mishandling of clergy sex abuse cases, Mahony has begun what some call a rehabilitation tour.
The archdiocese’s cover-up
The release of confidential files on 1980s clergy sex abuse in the Los Angeles Archdiocese is the beginning of the end of a long and sordid saga.
For years, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles fought to keep secret its confidential files concerning pedophile priests. Hundreds of sex abuse victims hoping for a full accounting of what church leaders knew about the growing scandal and what they did to stop it were rebuffed time and again.
But the cover-up is finally coming to an end. On Monday, a series of memos and letters filed in a civil case confirmed that Cardinal Roger M. Mahony and other church leaders plotted to shield pedophile priests rather than turn them over to police and prosecutors.
The documents, which date to 1986 and 1987, show how Mahony and Msgr. Thomas J. Curry, his top advisor on sex abuse cases, discussed strategies to keep priests from coming to the attention of law enforcement. Curry proposed to Mahony that certain priests be kept from seeing therapists, who would have been obliged to alert police; in other cases, priests were sent out of state to avoid criminal investigations. One cleric — who had admitted molesting undocumented immigrant children for decades, and even threatened one with deportation if he reported the abuse to police — was not allowed by Mahony to return to California from a treatment center, for fear that it would spark criminal or civil action.
The confidential files of at least 75 more abusers are expected to be released during the next few weeks as part of a 2007 legal settlement with some 500 abuse victims.
Sadly, few people will be shocked to learn that the archdiocese failed to protect children who had put their trust in the church, or that it refused to bring to justice the priests who betrayed that trust. Church officials in Boston, Philadelphia and elsewhere behaved similarly for decades, often shuffling priests from parish to parish to conceal abuse and thwart investigations, allowing those pedophiles to prey on new victims.
The latest revelations will also come as little surprise to survivors of clergy abuse. They have long accused the church hierarchy, including Mahony, of caring more about the church than its victims, more about public relations than about protecting the vulnerable. Mahony, who has repeatedly apologized for mishandling the cases, sounded contrite again Monday, saying he had been too naive and had failed to understand the lasting impact such abuse would have on the lives of young victims.
It’s true that these horrendous events happened years ago, when public attitudes toward child abuse were evolving. But it’s difficult to take Mahony’s claims of naivete seriously, given how keenly aware he seems to have been of both the actions of his priests and their legal ramifications. He knew these were criminal acts even as he sought to hide them from public scrutiny.
The church’s expressions of regret also ring hollow given its ongoing battle to keep the names of its leaders from appearing in the documents when they are finally released. Just this month, the archdiocese again asked a Los Angeles court to keep the names private.
Fortunately, a judge rejected that request. Only when the files have been released, including the names of all the people who participated in these crimes and the cover-up that followed, will the church have made good on its promise to reveal the whole truth.
The church retains its barrier of silence
A lack of transparency at the top of the Roman Catholic Church has come between pulpit and pew.
In January 2002, the Boston Globe published the first in a series of articles that exposed the sordid history of sexual abuse of youth in the Boston Roman Catholic archdiocese. Those stories revealed how church officials had kept knowledge of abuse from parishioners and kept abusing priests in parishes where they continued to blight the lives and faith of the innocent.
Later in 2002, as more cases of sexual abuse in more dioceses tumbled out of the dark and the silence to which they had been consigned, the U.S. Conference of Bishops hurriedly promised transparency. The Catholic faithful, the bishops said, should know the extent of priestly abuse and their church’s response.
In 2007, after paying at least $660 million in abuse settlements, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles joined a torturous legal defense of a privilege to conceal its part in that history. The Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press, along with advocates for the victims, challenged the claim of archdiocesan officials.
Last week, in response to a court order, the archdiocese released internal records documenting the actions church officials took — or failed to take — when priests were accused of abuse. More documents will be released in coming weeks, but from those we’ve seen already, we know that in the 1980s, then-Archbishop Roger Mahony and his Vicar of Clergy, then-Msgr. Thomas Curry, failed repeatedly when moral judgment required them to choose the good of the Catholic community over loyalty to their fraternity of parish priests.
It’s impossible to use a facile word like “closure” at this point. The victims, some in their 50s and 60s, live on. The men who abused them have their crimes to live with. Members of the hierarchy have their attempts at contrition and their own unanswered failures. Nothing with real meaning is ended.
The faithful still gather on Sunday morning in my suburban church for Mass and to hear a sermon preached, which typically runs to themes of faithfulness, virtue and awareness of human failings. Hardly any of the hundreds of sermons I’ve heard since 2002 reflected on the scandal of priestly abuse, and the very few that did were generalized promises of change. Not one Sunday sermon considered how or why some men in the priesthood in Los Angeles became sexual predators. No sermon spoke of the disillusionment — obvious to everyone — that the men and women in the pews feel.
The promised changes have begun. The background of everyone who works with children in the parish is vetted. Parish workers are trained to observe the signs of abuse. Even the children are better informed. Beyond the parish boundaries, new protocols are in place for judging the psychological fitness of men seeking the priesthood. There’s a new awareness of what an abusing personality is like and how unlikely an abuser is to respond to treatment. New regulations should prevent an abusing priest from being shuttled from one unsuspecting parish to another.
These changes in parish life were made necessary by a hierarchy that kept silent for far too long. But some of the changes have coarsened parish life. Because of the archdiocese’s fear of transparency, every priest has been a suspect. Children have been steered away from contact with their pastors. Insurance carriers and church lawyers have counseled even greater distancing. The barriers rising between priests and children put at risk youth retreats, sports programs run by religious orders and boys’ high schools — all of which were part of my Catholic childhood.
The gap between pulpit and pew is widening, but it’s from those pews that future priests come. The formation of a boy into a man with the strength of character to accept a vocation used to begin with a relationship between a priest and a boy. It used to begin with a boy’s hero worship. That may not have been the best way to begin a life of self-denial and celibacy, but being in the company of a priest who seemed both saintly and human was the start for many men on the long path toward the priesthood. Of course, hero worship made the crimes of a predatory priest so much easier to commit.
From the perspective of the pulpit, the failure of the Los Angeles Archdiocese to understand and fulfill its responsibilities is likely to be seen as a tragic mistake, to be sincerely regretted and cured by regulatory fiat and vigilance.
From the perspective of those in the pews, the causes of priestly abuse and the reaction of archdiocesan officials make a bewildering labyrinth of unexplored reasons, including any that might lie in our own failures of understanding. Having had the sexuality of priests forced on us in its most terrible and scandalous form — in the form of a monster — we in the pews have had no invitation to offer whatever insight from our own lives we might give the men who are called to make their sexuality a daily sacrifice. Silence is the disfiguring common feature that perpetuated abuse and leaves the parish community unable now to minister to those who would minister to us.
D.J. Waldie is a contributing writer to Opinion.
A sexual abuse story, complete with a rare glimpse of faith
January 16, 2013 By tmatt
As strange as it sounds, the goal of this post is to praise The Los Angeles Times for a page-one story focusing on a single case history linked to the decades of sexual abuse of children and teens by Catholic priests.
At the center of the story are two brothers, Damian and Bob Eckert and the priest, Father Robert Van Handel, who led the community boys choir in which they sang while growing up in Santa Barbara, Calif. Damian was 9 or 10 when he joined and Bob was about 8.
But the key to this remarkable story, other than the painful memories of Damian Eckert, is a once confidential document. This quotable source surfaced in the legal proceedings linked to the wave of sexual-abuse cases in California, including the Van Handel cases and others linked to the now-closed St. Anthony’s Seminary in Santa Barbara.
Simply stated, the document is the 27-page “sexual autobiography” that the priest prepared for a therapist who was attempting to treat him. Thus, the tragically creepy voice of the priest himself — speaking in short, italicized bursts of text — serves as one of the narrators for this story. For example, there is this quote at the start:
There is something about me that is happier when accompanied by a small boy. … Perhaps besides the sexual element, the child in me wants a playmate.
– Father Robert Van Handel
The story focuses on the thoughts and emotions of Damian Eckert the first time he clicked into this document online and faced a series of new revelations about the priest who abused him and created some of the emotional and spiritual booby traps that have exploded at key moments throughout his life. The direct quotes from this therapy diary add a concrete, highly specific spine of facts to the narrative — as opposed to all of those news stories on this painful topic that were forced to lean on vague memories and disputed accusations.
This allows for passages such as this one:
I asked my best friend once if he saw anything “special” in pictures of [naked] children. He said, ‘No, not at all.’ I began to realize that I was different.
The product of an alcoholic, volatile father who served in the military and a scared mother, Van Handel was the third of five children, Eckert read. The priest went to high school in the 1960s at St. Anthony’s, a campus of sandstone facades and grand towers near Old Mission Santa Barbara run by the Franciscan religious order.
Years later, while attending graduate school in Berkeley, he started a boys choir at a local parish, despite his self-professed lack of musical skills. There, Van Handel wrote, he met one of his first victims. He was 7 or 8. Light hair. Blue eyes. His parents were divorcing and grateful for the priest’s interest in their son.
Always this was done under the cover of some “legitimate” touching. [The boy] never seemed to mind, and I wasn’t about to stop on my own.
Around this time, Van Handel wrote, he implied to a Franciscan counselor that he was sexually attracted to boys. The counselor quickly changed the subject.
In 1975, at age 28, Van Handel returned to St. Anthony’s as a teacher and founded the Santa Barbara Boys Choir.
So, besides the quotations from this “sexual autobiography” of a predator priest, what makes this Times story different? What, for me, makes it a better than the average news feature on this tough topic?
A common, and totally logical, theme in these stories is the impact of abuse on the lives of the victims. However, the journalists behind many of these stories either omit the spiritual impact on these former altar boys, choristers, etc., or they crunch the religious element down into a simple lost of faith.
The reality is much more complex than that. For starters, the studies indicate that many of the abusers — secular or religious — were often abused themselves when they were children or teens. The sins of the fathers literally haunt the young into future generations.
So, in addition to the details about how Van Handel abused his relationship with the Eckert family, this “Column One” feature deals with one of the victim’s hard journey back into a church pew and, finally, his return to faith.
Yes, readers get the horrifyingly familiar details of church officials — including, this time, a hero among Catholic progressives — living in denial or worse. For starters, this seminary, as it turns out, was a “cesspool of abuse” where 11 clergy members had molested at least 34 boys.
The Franciscans said they first learned of Van Handel’s abuse in 1992 — five years after St. Anthony’s closed — when the parents of one boy wrote a letter describing the dart games Van Handel played with their son. If the boy won, he got money. If the priest won, he gave the child what he called a “back rub.”
A few months later, the same parents wrote to Cardinal Roger Mahony of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which includes Santa Barbara: “We challenge you as spiritual leader of this archdiocese, as shepherd of a wounded and wandering flock to address this horror, the destruction of our children’s lives by sexual abuse by clergy.” Mahony reassured them in a letter that no priest could serve “unless we are morally certain that he will be able to minister properly.”
In the end, the priest went to prison and also decided that he had, literally, lived a double life and never had a vocation to the priesthood in the first place. He asked Rome to defrock him and that request was granted.
Near the end, with the disclosure of the Van Handel “sexual autobiography,” another piece of the puzzle finally fits into place for Eckert.
[Van Handel’s] papers showed he once told a social worker that he was guilt-ridden, even suicidal, over what he’d done. He was also terrified that someone would make public those 27 confessional pages, which included his own secret:
One night when I was [a student at St. Anthony’s] I was sleeping alone in the school infirmary because I was running a fever. … I woke up in the night to find a priest sitting on my bed and ready to take my temperature, which he did. Then he took off the covers, lifted my pajama tops and lowered the bottoms. I tried to stop this, but he gently moved my hand out of the way.
Meanwhile Damian had, as the story puts it, “tiptoed back to religion.” A pastor — the story does not say it was a priest — helped him during a divorce. Still, during worship services, the former choirboy could not sing.
This is how the story ends.
Damian had rebuilt his life in recent years: getting remarried, having a third child, even singing again in a church play. He credited his renewed faith. So he scoured the priest’s papers for one thing in particular: whether he too felt a close connection to God.
An hour passed. Then two. “God is not here at all,” Damian thought — and that was a relief.
He rejoined his wife, Katie. “You all right?” she asked.
“Yeah. There’s some heavy stuff in there.” …
A few days later, Damian spoke to a friend he’d met at a church retreat. He told him about reading the papers, and how they’d changed the way he pictured the former priest. Damian started to cry.
For more than 30 years, Van Handel had been the monster who haunted his dreams.
Finally, the monster had lost his power.
Now, that’s a moving ending that attempts to take seriously the religious questions that haunt this story.
Nevertheless, I was left with one remaining question: Why not identify whether Damian Eckert has or has not returned to his Catholic faith? Isn’t that element a crucial part of the story? Why mention a “pastor” in a vague manner, without noting if this helpful figure is a priest? Why talk about worship services and church retreats without sharing whether or not Eckert has returned to the faith that was all but destroyed by the predator who once wore a Roman collar?