In a recent column, Los Angeles Times reporter William Lobdell wrote movingly about covering religion, his Christian faith, and his attraction to the Catholic Church. Lobdell had been thinking of converting to Catholicism before he started reporting the sexual-abuse scandal, but he never made it to the other side of the Tiber. Writing about the abuse crisis, it seems, can have a deleterious effect on one’s faith. So can reading about it.
Last month, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles agreed to pay 508 sexual-abuse victims a record $660 million—on top of previous settlements totaling $114 million. The payment dwarfs all others, in large part because in 2003 California enacted a law opening a one-year window for suits previously barred by statutes of limitation. (In addition, the archdiocesan seminary graduated an unusually high number of men later accused of sexual abuse.) To date, the scandal in the United States has cost dioceses roughly $2 billion, with Los Angeles accounting for nearly half that total.
But the staggering size of the L.A. settlement can be traced to another cause. The agreement came after years of legal wrangling—and just days before the cases would have gone to trial—as the archdiocese fought to keep priest-personnel files from plaintiffs and prosecutors. The archdiocese dubiously argued that bishop-priest communications are protected by the First Amendment, and that releasing such information would violate the priests’ right to privacy. The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed: in 2006 it refused to overturn a state-court ruling against the archdiocese. By that point, however, the clock had run out on the statutes of limitation in some cases, meaning that suits against several priests were dismissed. This caused many to wonder if that was the desired result.
Among the files released after the Supreme Court decision was that of George Miller. Laicized at Cardinal Roger Mahony’s request in 2005, Miller was arrested last month on new charges of molesting a child between 1988 and 1991. Another priest whose file was protected by the archdiocese, Michael Baker, was taken into custody last year and is awaiting trial. In 1986, Baker admitted to Mahony that he had molested children. Without notifying the police, the archbishop sent him into treatment. Subsequently, Baker was assigned to nine parishes in “restricted” ministry. Six of those parishes had elementary schools—but none was informed of Baker’s past. Mahony didn’t remove Baker until 2000. The cardinal, who has apologized for his errors in this case and others, said the Baker situation “troubles me the most,” as well it should.
As part of the settlement, a retired judge will review archdiocesan personnel files and determine which to release. As the Miller and Baker cases make clear, it is in both the public’s and the church’s best interests that as much information as possible come to light about the way the archdiocese mishandled the situation. If that means officials of the archdiocese are exposed to further civil or criminal liabilities, so be it. A bishop’s fiduciary responsibility for his diocese does not override the demands of justice for victims.
Still, three-quarters of a billion dollars is a huge amount of money, even for a diocese as large and financially secure as Los Angeles is. The archdiocese will pay $250 million in cash, insurance will cover $227 million, and religious orders will be responsible for the rest. To put this in context, in 2006 the assets of the archdiocese totaled $494 million, its liabilities were $415 million, meaning its net assets were $79 million. Considering that the archdiocese spent a total of $35 million on its many programs in ’06 (social services, evangelization, education, etc.), no one should harbor any illusions about the damage the settlement will do to the church’s ability to carry out its mission.
To point out that the neediest of those served by the church in Los Angeles will likely suffer as a result of these settlements may seem to invite the accusation that one is defending the indefensible. But acknowledging the terrible costs of the settlement is not an act of denial; it is an admission that financial compensation, even when it is necessary, is a blunt instrument of justice and never by itself enough. The havoc wreaked by abuser priests and the bishops who enabled them is first and foremost a matter of unimaginable private anguish for the victims. But these crimes have also fundamentally torn the fabric of trust within the church, which is why bishops must more explicitly acknowledge their own wrongdoing. Without clear acts of penitence by the church’s leaders, genuine healing will never begin.