Rarely do I find common cause with the editorialists at the Los Angeles Times, but when they’re right they’re right. In a March 17 editorial, the Times was harshly critical of the archbishop of Los Angeles for his continued obstruction of investigations into sexual abuse by priests. “When it comes to investigating priests accused of molesting children,” the column begins, “Los Angeles Cardinal Roger M. Mahony is more aggressive than any other bishop in the country. At shielding priests, that is, not at safeguarding children from sexual abuse.” The editorial came three days after a 2,100-word Times news story that detailed the extraordinary lengths Mahony and his legal team have gone to in frustrating the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office as it investigates allegations of priest misconduct.
In 2002, in response to the nationwide tidal wave of such allegations, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops established the National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People, and last month the board released their Report on the Crisis in the Catholic Church in the United States. The board was particularly critical of Mahony, one of only four bishops identified by name in the report. “Another troubled diocese was the Archdiocese of Los Angeles,” the report reads on page 38. “After allegations were made that [Mahony] had allowed numerous predator priests to remain in ministry, the Archdiocese engaged in a very public spat with law enforcement authorities who questioned the level of cooperation in the criminal investigation of sexual molestation charges. The Archdiocese resisted grand jury subpoenas seeking priest personnel files by arguing that communications between a priest and his bishop were privileged. This argument did little to enhance the reputation of the Church in the United States for transparency and cooperation.”
Indeed, Mahony and his lawyers have borrowed a page from the Bill Clinton handbook by claiming a legal privilege not previously known to exist. J. Michael Hennigan, Mahony’s chief lawyer, has put forward something called a “formation privilege,” which he likens to the priest-penitent privilege long recognized in American law. Church law, however, forbids bishops from hearing the confession of the priests they supervise, so this claim of privilege hangs on the principle that bishops have an obligation to provide spiritual guidance to their subordinate priests. Scholars in both civil and canon law interviewed by the Times were skeptical of such a privilege. Marci Hamilton, a professor at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, put it bluntly: “It just doesn’t exist,” she said.
But whether or not such a privilege will in the end be recognized by the courts misses the point of the board’s criticism. However small the number of abusive priests may be, the scandal has rocked the Church. To hide the truth behind some real or imagined claim of privilege is to prolong the crisis and empower those who would see the Church diminished as a voice of moral authority in the world. Cardinal Mahony surely has an obligation to guard the spiritual welfare of the priests serving in his archdiocese, but shouldn’t he subordinate this obligation to the truth? What of the victims of abusive priests who now look to the justice system for redress only to see their cases delayed again and again as the priests’ lawyers flit from one court to another in search of a sympathetic ruling?
Earlier this month I attended the funeral mass for Los Angeles police officer Ricardo Lizarraga, who was killed in the line of duty on February 27. The service was held at L.A.’s new Cathedral of our Lady of the Angels, which, with its nearly $200 million price tag, some have called the Taj Mahony. Mahony himself was the celebrant, and I regret to say that his presence, at least for me, diminished what was otherwise a stirring and fitting tribute for a young man who laid down his life in the service of others. Sitting not far from me near the sanctuary was district attorney Steve Cooley, who I suspect found the cardinal’s words of support for law enforcement every bit as hollow as I did, for I knew that he has helped predatory priests escape the punishment their crimes merit.
I’ve arrested a priest or two myself over the years for engaging in of un-priestly behavior. But my faith teaches me that through God all sins can be forgiven. Forgiveness, though, must be accompanied by honest repentance, by the acknowledgment of one’s transgressions and the acceptance of their consequences. Perhaps the National Review Board had Cardinal Mahony in mind when they concluded their report with this passage from Psalm 32:
As long as I kept silent,
My bones wasted away;
I groaned all the day . . .
Then I declared my sin to you;
my guilt I did not hide.
I said, “I confess my faults to the Lord,”
and you took away the guilt of my sin.
–Jack Dunphy is an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. “Jack Dunphy” is the author’s nom de cyber. The opinions expressed are his own and almost certainly do not reflect those of the LAPD management.